On Monday, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had announced that an “in principle” agreement had been arrived at between the US and the Taliban after nine rounds of talks held between their representatives in Doha, Qatar for the past year or so.
Under the accord, roughly 5,000 US soldiers would be withdrawn in 135 days after the deal was signed and the remaining 9,500 US and 8,600 mainly NATO forces would be withdrawn in phases thereafter.
Speaking late last month, US President Donald Trump said that he had planned to withdraw most US forces, leaving 8,600 behind.
But then, abruptly on Saturday, Trump said he had called off a secret face-to-face meeting with the Taliban, scheduled to be held at the US Presidential Retreat in Camp David on Sunday. Separately, Trump was also scheduled to meet President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan.
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
….only made it worse! 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. How many more decades are they willing to fight?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
The secret talks were called off, Trump said, because the militants acknowledged their role in a recent bomb attack in Kabul that had killed a US soldier in Afghanistan. He accused the Taliban of a wanton attack “that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people” in order to “seemingly strengthen their bargaining position”.
On Thursday, the Taliban had claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in the eastern part of Kabul that killed 12 people, including a Romanian and an American soldier, and wounded dozens.
The Taliban and the Afghan delegations were, by Trump’s own account, scheduled to arrive in the US on Saturday night. So far, the US has kept the Afghan government at arm’s length in the peace talks. Ghani, on the other hand, has been insisting that the Taliban declare a ceasefire immediately and hold talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban has refused, saying that the Kabul government is illegitimate. After being briefed about the “in principle” deal, Ghani had complained that it had no penalties for the Taliban were it to not honour its conditions.
Despite signs that the US was willing to make a deal with the Taliban and the repeated rounds of talks, the Taliban refused to end their campaign of violence against the Afghan government forces and the foreign forces in the country. So far 16 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year. But the worst brunt has been of Afghans themselves, who have been collateral casualties in the conflict. Though the Taliban do not control any major cities, they control more territory than at any time since the US-led campaign forced them out.
Just why Trump decided to pull out at the last minute is not clear. But it is not an unusual action on his part. Consider his recent decision to cancel his visit to Denmark, because the country refused to discuss the sale of Greenland. He later also cancelled an important visit to Poland that was part of the European tour to Copenhagen, because he said he had to monitor Hurricane Dorian whose limits he had fudged with a pen.
Maybe the penny finally dropped about the proximity of the talks with the 9/11 anniversary. A Taliban delegation in Camp David, along with the death of the US soldier in Afghanistan, may have been taken badly by his own nationalistic base. On the other hand, however, it could be that Trump finally realised that the Taliban refusal to stop its violence was, indeed, giving it leverage in the situation. The Taliban, though, insists that it is not under any obligation to stop attacks unless there is a full ceasefire in place. And it will not agree to a ceasefire till all the foreign forces have pulled out.
The US administration appears to be divided on a deal, with a report that secretary of state Mike Pompeo is refusing to sign the “in principle” agreement that Khalilzad has hammered out. Though secretary of defence Mark Esper met Trump on September 3, he has refused to reveal his views on what he says are “ongoing” negotiations.
In his 2016 election campaign, Trump had called for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, but of late he had been arguing that the US would maintain a presence of around 9,000 troops, the same number that had been there at the time he took office. But there has been no dearth of warnings from observers saying that the agreement would destabilise the situation and lead to a collapse of the Afghan state and a return of the medieval group that had enforced what they call the Shariat laws and brutalised women.
The Trump move is, however, likely to be temporary. He is keen to show that he has upheld his election commitments. As for the Afghan parties, they have suffered a great deal and they, too, want peace, but each on their own terms. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is keen to press ahead with national elections at the end of this month to consolidate forces.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.