Afghans Glad Trump Stopped Taliban Talks, Even if They Doubt His Explanation

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KABUL, Afghanistan — After Abdul Sami was sent tumbling and knocked unconscious by a powerful Taliban car bombing last week, he had no idea that an American soldier was among the 12 people killed.

On Monday, perched on a hospital bed, legs and abdomen wrapped in bandages, Mr. Sami shrugged when told that the attack and soldier’s death had been cited by President Trump on Saturday as the basis for his decision to abort peace talks with the Taliban.

“Tell Mr. Trump I’m very, very tired and I don’t feel like keeping up with these peace talks anyway,” said Mr. Sami, 23, a travel agency employee. “There is no point in trying for peace when the Taliban does such terrible things to innocent people.”

For many Afghans, the abrupt suspension of talks after 10 months of negotiations was not entirely unexpected. What jarred them was the notion that a single attack, and the death of one American, could really have upended the talks when the deaths of thousands of Afghans this year — not to mention at least 15 other American soldiers — had not.

That was the question on the mind of Ghulam Mohammad, 35, a laborer wounded in the bombing that killed the American, Army Sgt. First Class Elis Barreto Ortiz. His wiry body was bent in pain Monday from a hole ripped in his stomach by shrapnel.

“It’s always the poor people who are stepped on and killed,” Mr. Mohammad said. “Nobody cares about us — not Trump, not our own government.”

The doctor who treated him also was skeptical.

“This is all a political game. Why talk for ten months and then suddenly stop — and just because an American soldier was killed?” asked the doctor, who was not authorized to speak with reporters.

“I’d like to ask Mr. Trump why he didn’t stop the peace talks after all those attacks when the Taliban killed so many civilians,” the doctor said.

There had been deep skepticism in Afghanistan that the Taliban would ever agree to share power, cut ties with terrorist groups or stop killing civilians — especially after the group ramped up suicide attacks in urban centers during the talks.

In the countryside, Afghan forces supported by American advisers and air power also have intensified operations since last fall. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that more than a thousand Taliban fighters had been killed over the previous 10 days.

Since negotiations between the United States and the Taliban began last fall, many Afghans had lived in a state of suspended animation, between hope and dread. There was hope that decades of war might finally come to a close, but dread that under a peace deal the Taliban would return to power and reimpose their brutal repression.

Many Afghans also have expressed concern that the United States, eager to end nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan, would withdraw its 14,000 troops abruptly. Some fear such a move would precipitate the kind of mayhem that nearly destroyed the country and brought the Taliban to power in 1996.

The suspension of talks between the United States and the Taliban appeared to open the way for proceeding with a presidential election Sept. 28. The election had been in doubt because of concerns that it would interfere with talks between the Afghan government an the Taliban, which had been expected to begin as early as this month as part of the proposed agreement scuttled by Mr. Trump.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, who had fumed while his government was excluded from the Taliban talks with the United States, is running for a second five-year term. The Taliban, which fiercely opposes elections, has attacked polling stations in previous campaigns.

Violence continued unabated Monday. The Taliban besieged parts of three northern provinces, with civilians killed in the fighting along with government security forces and Taliban fighters.

In Kabul, gunmen in trucks raced through the streets, firing in the air to commemorate the anniversary of Al Qaeda’s assassination of a famous politician and military commander, the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some clashed with security forces.

The police said one security force member and a civilian bystander were killed. A roadside bomb wounded three Masood supporters.

Speaking at a ceremony honoring the slain commander, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive, said, “Today, we are as far from peace as we were years ago,” an Afghan news channel reported.

In a video posted on Facebook, several pro-Masood gunmen were shown firing pistols at a campaign billboard of Mr. Ghani, a political foe of many followers of Mr. Masood from the northern province of Panjshir.

For many Afghans, such scenes only deepened a sense of futility and despair born of exhaustion from the violence that intensified on both sides during the 10 months of talks between the Americans and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.

“It was never in the interests of the Afghan people,” Shahla Farid, a law professor at Kabul University and a women’s rights activist, said of the proposed deal for an American withdrawal. “The Afghan people who are the main victims of this war were kept in the dark.”

For many Afghan women, who were confined to their homes by the Taliban and forced to cover themselves in public, the halt to negotiations was a blessing. Women interviewed in recent months have said the rights and freedoms won since the American-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001 would be threatened by any deal that returned the Taliban to power.

Ms. Farid was so disillusioned by the proposed deal, she said, that she had planned to take nearly 500 burqas to the United States for women to wear in protest if the agreement were consummated.

She said she believed Mr. Trump had seized on the American soldier’s death as a pretext to halt the proposed agreement, in part, over Taliban intransigence and concern that the group would not honor its commitments once American troops withdrew.

If not for public complaints about the proposed deal from women and other skeptics, a flawed agreement might have been finalized, said Mary Akrami, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, a coalition of rights groups. She said the deal would have legitimized the Taliban.

Ms. Akrami said she doubted Mr. Trump’s contention that he called off negotiations over the death of a single American soldier. If that explanation were true, she said, “it would be a disrespect to all Afghans, to all the victims who lost their lives.”

On social media Monday, many Afghans mocked the American special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who said last week that a peace agreement had been reached “in principle,” pending approval by Mr. Trump.

“Khalilzad had a miscarriage in the ninth month,” one Facebook post read.

In the north, several civilians cut off by Taliban assaults but reached by telephone expressed relief that the talks were off.

When they heard the news, “people were happy, but still worried that this was another plot to hand us over to the Taliban,” said Malalai, 46, a women’s rights activist in Kunduz who goes by one name.

Najmuddin Akrami, 65, a carpenter in Kunduz, said that regardless of any peace deal, the Taliban were getting stronger while “America is trying to play any game or trick to find a way to leave Afghanistan.”

At the hospital in Kabul, Momin Rasooli, 18, sat shirtless with a bandage covering a chest wound suffered in a Taliban suicide bombing on Sept. 2. His brother, Jawad Jawed, 25, tried to console him.

Mr. Jawed said he never believed the American talks with the Taliban would produce a real peace.

“As long as there is an Afghanistan, there will always be fighting and death,” he said. “It’s all I’ve known all my life.”

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