Washington: President Donald Trump said on Saturday that he had cancelled a secret meeting at Camp David with Taliban leaders and the president of Afghanistan and was calling off months-long negotiations that had appeared to be nearing a peace agreement.

“Unbeknownst to almost everyone,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets, Taliban leaders and the Afghan president, Ashraf Gani, were headed to the United States on Saturday for what would have been a politically fraught meeting at the president’s official Camp David retreat in Maryland.

But Trump said that “in order to build false leverage,” the Taliban had admitted to a suicide car bomb attack on Thursday that had killed a US soldier and 11 others in the capital of Kabul. “I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote.

“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 added. “How many more decades are they willing to fight?”

Trump’s announcement was startling for multiple reasons. A surprise summit at Camp David with leaders of an insurgent group that has killed thousands of Americans since the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan would have been a sensational diplomatic gambit, on par with Trump’s meetings with the once-reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. A senior administration official said the meeting had been planned for Monday, just two days before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, which were plotted from Afghanistan and led to the United States’ invasion of the country.

Trump’s statement also appears to scuttle — for now — his long-standing hope to deliver on a campaign promise to withdraw US troops from an 18-year conflict that he has called an aimless boondoggle.

It comes amid stubborn resistance within Afghanistan’s government about the peace agreement that had been under discussion, not only for security reasons but also because Gani has been determined to preserve a planned September 28 election, which he is favoured to win. The Taliban have insisted on postponing the election before proceeding with negotiations with the Afghan government.

Several people familiar with the diplomacy between the Trump administration and the Taliban puzzled over Trump’s stated decision to cancel peace negotiations entirely in response to one US casualty, however tragic. The Taliban had not agreed to halt their attacks on Americans in advance of a formal agreement. That raised the question of whether Trump might have been looking for a pretext because the talks had run into trouble.

Growing pressure

The development is sure to inflame a Washington political debate about the talks that until now had largely played out in national security circles to little public fanfare. Trump had been coming under growing pressure from conservatives not to hastily exit the country while many leading Democrats have said they support peace talks leading to a US withdrawal.

Many other details of the scrapped Camp David meeting were unclear Saturday night. The senior Trump administration official said that the decision to cancel the meeting had been made Thursday but that Trump had delayed his announcement. On Friday, Afghan officials confirmed that Gani postponed a planned meeting in Washington. One person familiar with the diplomacy said that the plan for a Taliban visit to Washington had not been under discussion until about a week ago. (Taliban representatives have not yet confirmed that they ever planned to attend such a meeting.)

It was also unclear whether Trump’s halt to the peace negotiations would be permanent. The president has reversed such decisions in short order before. In May 2018, for instance, he abruptly cancelled his second summit with Kim, only to reschedule it days later. But several people familiar with the Afghan talks said Saturday that it could be difficult to restart them.

The negotiations have been underway since last winter, when Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, began regular trips to Doha, Qatar, for gruelling sessions with Taliban representatives. US and foreign officials said that the talks had reached an advanced stage and that, until Saturday night, an agreement with the Pashtun insurgent group that once harboured Al Qaida mastermind Osama Bin Laden was close at hand.

In nine rounds of negotiations, Khalilzad painstakingly worked toward what was described as a phased peace agreement — initially a deal between the United States and the Taliban that would open the door for direct negotiations between the Afghan sides, before all of it came together in a final Afghan peace deal.

Partial ceasefire

Khalilzad had proposed drawing down US troops in exchange for a partial ceasefire by the Taliban. In a recent interview with the Afghan channel ToloNews, he said 5,400 US forces would leave Afghanistan within 135 days of a signed agreement.

Under that tentative deal, the number of US troops would have initially been reduced to about what it was when Trump took office in 2017.

As for the remaining 8,600 US forces, they would have left according to a gradual timeline, perhaps within 16 months.

That would have allowed Trump, who has been routinely critical of expensive US interventions in the Muslim world, to declare that he had ended a long and increasingly unpopular conflict and to boast that he had achieved an outcome his predecessor, President Barack Obama, sought in vain.

Critics of the nascent agreement — including the former US commander in Afghanistan, retired Army General David Petraeus — have warned that it could lead to the return of Al Qaida. Several have invoked the cautionary example of Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq, which many national security experts blame for the 2014 emergence of the Islamic State in that country.

And in a September 3 statement published by the Atlantic Council, nine former senior US diplomats with extensive experience in Afghanistan warned that a “major withdrawal of US forces should follow, not come in advance of real peace agreement.”

Anarchy in Afghanistan after a premature US exit “could prove catastrophic for US national security” and would “underscore to potential enemies that the United States and its allies are not reliable,” the statement said.

Such critics have pointed to a recent wave of Taliban attacks as a sign that the insurgent group cannot set aside violence. The attack cited by the president involved a car bomb detonated at a checkpoint near the US Embassy in Kabul.

Afghan government officials who have been briefed on the negotiations privately said Khalilzad did not force enough concessions from the Taliban to ensure stability as the US military leaves Afghanistan.