Afghan Presidential Spokesman Sediq Seddqi gives a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan. Picture: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
Kabul – Afghan officials, analysts and citizens on Sunday cautiously welcomed President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was calling off the troubled US-Taliban peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year conflict.
After weeks of mounting uncertainty and suspicion here, with insurgent violence raging across the country even as a bilateral deal neared, Trump’s surprising tweets late Saturday seemed to burst the pent-up tension across Afghan society and offer a moment of relief – even as it created new fears over what would come next.
The Taliban, for their part, waited all day before issuing a coolly worded statement saying they had been ready to sign a peace agreement with the United States, but Trump’s impatience had sabotaged the process and the insurgents would now continue their “jihad” against foreign “occupation.”
The days before Trump’s bombshell were filled with conflicting signals from Taliban and US leaders. While US negotiators said a deal was imminent, Taliban attacks intensified. Outside the negotiations, an array of US politicians, military leaders and diplomats warned that a hasty deal and troop pullout could lead to chaos and even civil war.
Afghans on Sunday expressed measured relief.
“There is definitely a silver lining to this,” said Haroun Mir, an analyst based in Kabul. “There was total confusion before. Everyone was afraid the U.S. would sign a cease-fire but the Taliban would continue their war against the Afghan government and people.
“Now President Trump has personally rectified this with his own tweet.”
Few Afghans had trusted the closed-door negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. Many expressed fears that the Trump administration would make too many concessions to the insurgents, giving them free rein to reimpose extreme Islamic rule and sacrificing gains in rights and freedoms under democratic rule.
President Ashraf Ghani, who had fumed for months about being excluded from the talks, prepared to fly to Washington this weekend, without public explanation. Aides said Friday the trip had been postponed.
In his tweets Saturday, Trump said he was canceling secret meetings planned with Taliban leaders and Ghani at Camp David after the most recent Taliban attack, a bombing Thursday near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that killed a U.S. service member, 10 Afghans and a Romanian soldier.
It was not clear whether Taliban leaders had agreed to participate or not. In the statement late Sunday, they made no mention of meetings.
A spokesman for Ghani declined Sunday to say what he had planned to do in Washington beyond expressing his concerns about the talks.
The Ghani government strongly welcomed Trump’s announcement early Sunday, saying it coincided with official worries here that the Taliban were manipulating the peace process. Officials reiterated Ghani’s long-standing insistence that only direct bilateral talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders could bring about an enduring and substantive settlement.
Ghani’s chief spokesman said Trump’s decision “showed he has a proper understanding of the situation and sees that the Taliban are not committed to peace.”
Spokesman Sediq Sediqqi thanked the United States for its efforts, but said now the Taliban must “stop killing Afghans and agree to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. We have always been behind a meaningful peace process and we will always be the implementer of that process.”
Sediqqi also said direct talks among Afghans could not begin any time soon because of ongoing attacks.
“We do not have conditions for talks, but peace has conditions,” he said. “How is it possible to sit in talks and continue the violence?” He said the Taliban had been enjoying a “honeymoon” in Qatar, the site of the negotiations, while “cheating Afghanistan and the world. This needs to come to an end.”
It was unclear what impact Trump’s actions would have on presidential elections scheduled for Sept. 28. Until now, U.S. officials were pressing for the peace talks to finish in time to hold Afghan-Taliban talks before the vote. Many Afghans had called for the election to be postponed, fearing it could disrupt the peace process. But Sediqqi said Sunday it would be held on schedule. Ghani has been running hard for reelection despite Taliban threats to attack the polls.
Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief, is one of several candidates who offered to quit the race in the interest of peace.
“It is time for the Taliban to step forward, stop the bloodshed, announce a cease-fire and start direct talks with the Afghan side,” he said.
The Taliban said late Sunday they were still prepared to return to the table, but Trump’s abrupt cancellation of bilateral talks would harm America and “increase its financial and human losses.”
If talks are not resumed, spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, “we will continue to (wage) jihad” and “put an end to the total occupation” of Afghanistan.
The Taliban have killed scores of people in the last two weeks in attacks and suicide bombings in the capital and elsewhere. The insurgents also launched recent offensives in northern Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, and there were reports Sunday that they had stepped up those attacks, possibly blocking a major highway to Kabul.
Trump’s announcement came just before a week of religious and political events that could be targets for further violence. Monday is the anniversary of the death of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban militia leader who was assassinated in 2001. Tuesday is the emotional peak day of Muharram, a Shiite mourning period, when Shiite mosques and communities have been attacked in previous years.
Haroun Rahimi, who teaches law at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, said he was fearful of what might happen next.
“A lot of Afghans are happy about Trump’s tweets because they may stop a bad deal with the Taliban,” he tweeted Sunday. “But they ignore the fact that there is a fundamental lack of strategy in Afghanistan that could prolong and exacerbate the bloody conflict.”
Some said the insurgents should never be forgiven for their attacks on civilians, and that they had used the bilateral peace process as an excuse to show military might.
“The Taliban were never interested in peace … they just kept killing people indiscriminately to get a stronger bargaining position,” tweeted Raihana Azad, a legislator from Daikundi province.
Others criticized Trump for saying he had canceled the talks because of a bombing that killed a U.S. soldier, after months of attacks that harmed hundreds of Afghan civilians. There was also speculation that he had used the recent attack as an excuse to cancel the talks amid growing domestic pressure to keep troops here longer.
“American life matters for the U.S., but it is not important for them if Afghans are dying like lambs,” said Ahmad Shah Aria, 23, an economics student in Kabul. “Violence has been intense during the talks, and it will intensify if the talks stop.”
Credit: Pamela Constable