President Donald Trump made the surprising announcement late Saturday that he had canceled what was set to be a secret meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David for ongoing peace talks. The president claimed he nixed the meeting after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a Thursday attack in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. service member.
Trump said it was “unbeknownst to almost everyone” that Taliban leaders and the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, were set to travel to the United States for a meeting at the presidential retreat in Maryland. But he “immediately canceled the meeting and called off peace negotiations” after the Taliban claimed responsibility for 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 wrote.
The president’s announcement was surprising on several levels. Hosting a group that has killed thousands of Americans over the past 18 years would have been controversial in itself. The timing seemed particularly delicate considering the meeting had been planned for two days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It also looks like Trump effectively ended nearly a year of negotiations between the Taliban and the United States that appeared the best hope of delivering on the president’s campaign promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.
Many were surprised by Trump’s decision to take such a drastic step in response to a single attack and one U.S. casualty. After all, the Taliban had never agreed to end their attacks as a precondition to enter talks. “After all the violence during many months of negotiations, it’s difficult to see why last Thursday’s attack would be the sole reason for changing course,” Laura Miller, Asia director for the International Crisis Group, said. “This could be a blow to the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the peace process. Hopefully it can be brought back on track because there’s no better alternative.”
Questions over the real reason to cancel the talks have led some experts to wonder whether Trump may have been looking for an excuse because the negotiations were actually in trouble. It’s also possible that Trump faced pushback from Republican allies who have been reluctant to seal a peace deal with the Taliban.
For now details are sketchy and it remains unclear whether the talks have been fully called off or whether they have just paused. (Trump has called off meetings before only to quickly resume negotiations.) But the Taliban did warn Sunday that Trump’s decision to nix the talks would lead to more U.S. deaths. “The Americans will suffer more than anyone else for cancelling the talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said. The Afghan government seemed unsure of how to respond to the announcement, saying only that “real peace will come when Taliban agree to a ceasefire.”