WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – US President Donald Trump on Saturday said he canceled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group claimed responsibility last week for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.
Trump said he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s president.
But Trump said he immediately called the talks off when the insurgents said they were behind the attack.
“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.
The surprise announcement left in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out last week by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, for a drawdown of thousands of US troops over the coming months.
There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but the decision appeared to catch them by surprise.
Just hours before Trump’s tweet, a senior Taliban leader privy to talks in Doha with US officials including Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an agreement to sign the deal appeared close.
Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri over the past week and carried out two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.
One of the blasts, a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday, took the life of US Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.
A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has been “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts there, a senior US military commander said on Saturday as he visited neighboring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.
U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations themselves but criticized a wave of Taliban violence that has cast a long shadow over the deal.
“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, told reporters traveling with him.
McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which, in turn, should result in reduced violence.
“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties are going to be able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.
Under the draft accord, some 5,000 US troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.
However, a full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong US forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops.
The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and instead stepped up operations across the country and it remains unclear whether they will accept direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.
For Afghans, the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks has underscored fears it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement following any complete US withdrawal.