WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Saturday he is suspending peace negotiations to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a car bomb this week that killed an American and 11 others.
The president said that Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani were secretly preparing to travel to the United States this weekend, presumably to finalize an agreement that has been in the works for months to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Instead, Trump said he is canceling that meeting.
“I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” Trump wrote in a tweet on Saturday. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?”
Trump disclosed that he had planned to meet with Taliban and Afghan officials on Sunday at Camp David, but that once-secret plan has been called off. He accused Taliban officials of trying to “build false leverage” in those talks with the bombing.
Trump has said he wants to pull thousands of U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. His administration has been negotiating with the Taliban to reduce the roughly 14,000 troops now in Afghanistan. A U.S. envoy said on Monday that an initial agreement had been reached to achieve that goal, but Trump remained noncommittal about his support.
More than 2,400 American soldiers have been killed in the war, according to the most recent figures from the Pentagon.
As recently as Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. had “delivered” on its promises in Afghanistan.
“If you go back and look at the days following 9/11, the objectives set out were pretty clear: to go defeat al-Qaeda, the group that had launched the attack on the United States of America from Afghanistan,” Pompeo said in an interview with a conservative website. “And today, al-Qaeda … doesn’t even amount to a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan … We have delivered.”
The State Department referred questions about Trump’s announcement back to the White House.
Trump’s desire to reduce America’s military presence in Afghanistan has been fraught with political and military peril. Critics – including some of Trump’s strongest supporters – fear a U.S. withdrawal will open the door for a resurgence of al-Qaida, as well as other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, such as the Islamic State.
The president is also under pressure to avoid a hasty agreement in order to meet his desire to reduce troop levels. That pressure has come from Afghan leaders, some members of Congress and also hawks within his White House.
“This will make President Ghani happy but will slow down hopes for an early September deal,” said Aaron David Miller, a diplomat who has worked for administrations of both parties. “Bottom line – there are no good withdrawal deals. If Trump wants out – likely a choice between bad and worse.”
Two NATO services members, including an American, were among a dozen people killed in the attack in Kabul on Thursday.
Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer and global engagement director for President Barack Obama, expressed shock that any American president would invite the Taliban, a militant Islamic group that has targeted American soldiers throughout the war, to the U.S.
“Coming to the United States, let alone to a presidential retreat is a prize saved for when real concessions have been made,” Bruen told USA TODAY. “As we have seen in North Korea, Trump’s negotiations with our adversaries are marked by their preference for style over strategy. Ultimately it is a recipe for damaging our influence and the prospects for peace.”