Trump cancels Taliban talks: What does it mean for Afghanistan?

2019-09-08 22:02
President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump.

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In an abrupt move, US President Donald Trump said on Saturday he had called off separate secret meetings planned for the next day with the Taliban and Afghanistan's president at Camp David.

Citing a Taliban-claimed deadly attack in Kabul last week, Trump also said he was cancelling the talks between the United States and the Taliban that started almost a year ago in Qatar in an effort to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

In a statement on Sunday, the Afghan government praised the "sincere efforts of its allies" and expressed its commitment to work with the US "to bring lasting peace".

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A Taliban representative in Doha, who is part of the team that had been negotiating with US officials since October last year, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that the group has called a meeting to discuss its next move, without reacting further to Trump's move.

In a statement later on Sunday, the Taliban said the decision to call off the peace negotiations disclosed its "anti-peace" stance.

So what is behind the US president's decision and what does it mean for the future of negotiations?

What have the talks been about?

On September 2, the US and the Taliban concluded their ninth round of negotiations in the Qatari capital, with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad saying that a peace agreement had been finalised "in principle".

Since the talks began in October last year, the two sides' discussions over a potential agreement have focused on four key issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow foreign armed groups and fighters to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks outside the country; the complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces; an intra-Afghan dialogue; and a permanent ceasefire.

The Taliban, which was overthrown in 2001 by a US-led military coalition for sheltering al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, has long demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign troops in order to "end the occupation" in Afghanistan.

Currently, there are about 14 000 US troops and around 17 000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partner countries in Afghanistan in a non-combative role.

Why did Trump call off the talks?

The Taliban, which has long rejected calls by Washington and Kabul for a ceasefire, stepped up attacks on recent weeks, even as the negotiations in Doha were ongoing.

Last week, as the Taliban and US negotiators reached a draft accord, hundreds of the group's fighters overran parts of the strategic northern city of Kunduz.

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Attacks were also launched in the provinces of Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh, Farah and Herat, according to Afghan local media. The Kabul-Baghlan and Baghlan-Kunduz highways were blocked, too, due to the fighting.

The Taliban also claimed responsibility for two major suicide bombings that killed at least 30 people in Kabul, including one US soldier and one Romanian service member of NATO's Afghanistan mission.

Jeff Stacey, a former US State Department official, told Al Jazeera that although Trump's comments were unexpected, they showed a "serious" approach by a president who has been "very unpredictable" and inconsistent in regards to Washington's Afghan policy.

"It is positive sign, it confirms that it's been taken very seriously," he told Al Jazeera. "The fact the talks are cancelled just suggests that there is a little difficulty in the latest discussions," Stacey added.

"They are trying to move the Taliban further towards the American and Afghan government goals, so it's not really that big of deal - it's actually more positive than negative."

For Intizar Khadim, a political analyst in Kabul, Trump's move was "a negotiating tactic".

"I would not call it cancellation of the talks but rather a delay or suspension," he told Al Jazeera, predicting that Trump "will reverse back" his latest move.

"It is a psychological pressure from the US government on the Taliban to concede a number of incentives that the Afghan government is asking from the United States."

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The Afghan government, politicians and some members of the US administration who mistrust the Taliban say a deal that would see US troops withdrawing from the country could lead to a civil war in Afghanistan.

Following Trump's announcement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office said on Sunday that "real peace" would only be possible if the Taliban stopped launching attacks and held direct talks with the government. 

The Taliban has long refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, calling it a "puppet regime" that has no real power.

"The Taliban need to abandon a military solution, agree to a ceasefire, negotiate directly with the Afghan government and reintegrate into Afghan society," Lawrence Sellin, a retired US Army reserve colonel, told Al Jazeera.

"A return to an Emirate is a recipe for disaster and would likely lead to civil war and an epicentre of terrorism and jihad."

Is US legitimising the Taliban?

Meanwhile, the location of the secret meetings came as a surprise to many who pointed out that Camp David has long been a place reserved for summits attended by world leaders. 

"Inviting the Taliban, who many consider a terrorist group, was a politically risky move both from the optics and from a greater likelihood of failure and embarrassment to the president," Sellin told Al Jazeera.

If such a meeting were to take place, it would also mean that Trump would host the Taliban just days before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

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"I am frankly shocked that any presidential adviser would have recommended it. President Trump cancelled it for the reasons he stated - that is, the optics were unfavourable given the recent Taliban-claimed bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier and many Afghans."

The apparent legitimacy offered to the Taliban was also "not acceptable" by many in Afghanistan, according to Faheem Dashty, a Kabul-based political analyst.

"They were complaining the way the US were promoting the Taliban and giving them ground to be recognised in an international way and in very high and credible manner, but after Trump's announcement, they will now they will feel under pressure."

In an article published in the Daily Beast, a senior European diplomat in Kabul said the Taliban was rather "rude with the US throughout the peace process because they have the impression that a withdrawal deal is a desperate desire of the USA, not the Taliban".

Why is the Taliban refusing calls for ceasefire?

The Taliban now controls or holds influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since its toppling in 2001.

According to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of January 31 last year, 229 districts (56.3 percent) were under the Afghan government's control.

On the other hand, 59 districts (14.5 percent) were under the Taliban control. The remaining 119 districts (29.2 percent) remain contested - controlled by neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban.

"The civilians have been targeted to show visibilities and the group's strength to show to the international community that they cannot be defeated," political analyst Hashim Wahdatyar, who is a director at the Institute of Current World Affairs in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

"For this reason, blind attacks including bombs and suicide attacks are resulting in civilian casualties."

The Taliban has repeatedly said there will be no ceasefire until US troops withdrew.

When the loya jirga (grand council) in May called for an immediate ceasefire between the government and the Taliban during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Ghani agreed to a truce provided it was not "one-sided".

However, the Taliban rejected the call, saying waging a war during Ramadan had "even more rewards".

What happens if US troops leave?

A United Nations report released earlier this year said that 2018 saw the highest number of civilians killed in Afghanistan's war than any other year on record.

Civilian deaths jumped to 3 804, an 11 percent increase compared to the year before. The death toll included 927 children, while another 7 189 people were wounded, according to the UN figures, as suicide attacks and bombings wreaked havoc across Afghanistan. 

In another report released in May by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Afghan and international forces, including NATO, killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the Taliban or fighters from other armed groups.

At least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, with 52.5 percent of all deaths coming in that period.

With the spike in violence, there is a growing desperation for peace among ordinary Afghans.

"The country will fall to another civil war and some countries of the region will support each faction for a proxy war," Wahdatyar told Al Jazeera.

"The Islamic State (ISIL) will take the opportunity and will expand and the country will become a hotbed of international terrorism. Without the international community active support, the Afghan security forces will collapse."

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