Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that President Trump ended peace negotiations with the Taliban because the group had “failed to live up to a series of commitments they had made,” but he left open the possibility that American troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan even in the absence of a deal.
“The Taliban overreached,” he said, apparently referring to the escalation of car bombings and other violence around Kabul as negotiators closed in on an agreement. Mr. Trump said a peace deal was supposed to have been sealed at a meeting at Camp David attended by Taliban leaders and then, separately, with Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan.
A car bombing on Thursday killed one American soldier, which Mr. Trump said in a series of tweets Saturday night had led to his decision. “President Trump said, ‘Enough,’” Mr. Pompeo said on ABC’s “This Week.” The lead American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, had been recalled to the United States, Mr. Pompeo added.
Despite Mr. Trump’s tweet, it was not clear that the Taliban leadership had ever agreed to come to the president’s official Camp David retreat in Maryland for the meeting, a hastily organized effort by Mr. Trump to replicate past peace deals and declare that America’s longest war was being ended. The timing certainly would have been awkward — it was scheduled to take place just days before the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, which were planned on Afghan soil by terrorists under Taliban protection.
Comments Mr. Pompeo made in a separate appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” made it clear that even if the Taliban had shown up, the outcome was not certain. The deal would have committed the Taliban to reducing violence, but not ending violence. And it would have incorporated an agreement for the Taliban to then negotiate with Mr. Ghani’s government over the political future of the country.
[Taliban talks hit a wall over deeper disagreements, officials say.]
The attempt to broker a deal came at what may be among the most precarious moments in Afghanistan since 2001. Mr. Trump has vowed to reduce the number of American forces there, saying two weeks ago that their numbers would come down to 8,600, from a current level of about 14,000. That is far below the 100,000 troops that were based there during the height of the war. But Mr. Trump has never set conditions on his decision to withdraw — a step many experts see as a mistake, since it has encouraged the Taliban to simply wait out the Americans, guessing they might begin a withdrawal with no agreement.
It remains unclear why Mr. Trump canceled the meeting; while he linked it to the death of the American serviceman in a car bombing, other Americans have died in similar attacks while negotiations were underway in Doha, Qatar.
But it is possible that Mr. Trump began to fear the negative reviews of the agreement, which came even from many of his Republican colleagues. The agreement called for a reduction in violence but not a complete cease-fire. It left unclear what role the Taliban would play in future politics.
And the Afghan government has objected both to the terms of a possible agreement and to how it was negotiated with the Taliban.
Only recently did the United States government brief Mr. Ghani about the details of the negotiations, and even then would not leave him with a copy of the agreement about the fate of his country. Mr. Ghani has met several times with Mr. Khalilzad, the American envoy who is in charge of the peace negotiations. The two men have known each other for years.
Mr. Ghani fundamentally does not believe that the Taliban will reach an acceptable accord with the elected government, and it appears he was not willing to travel to Washington if he felt he would be cornered into signing an agreement that would be hard to enforce. Mr. Ghani’s concerns are deeply rooted in history, as the withdrawal of the Soviet Union resulted in the Afghan state collapsing into anarchy. Mr. Ghani is cautioning against a rushed process that could bring about a repeat of that chaos.
The United States’ deal with the Taliban was to include a schedule for the withdrawal of the remaining American and NATO troops in the country, who number more than 20,000 all together. In return, the Taliban would provide assurances that they would not support international terrorist groups, so that Afghan soil would not be used for attacks against the West, and they would open direct talks with Afghan officials.
American and Western officials say they had prepared for an immediate start to direct talks between the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, once the withdrawal schedule was announced. Before the cancellation, some officials said they hoped momentum in the talks would result in the elections being delayed.
That hope is now dashed, and it seems likely the election will go forward. But American officials fear it could be deeply marred by violence if the Taliban believe the negotiations are over.