Trump: Tal­iban talks are ‘dead’

U.S. OF­FI­CIALS SPLIT OVER NE­GO­TI­A­TIONS

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN DEY­OUNG, JOSH DAWSEY AND MISSY RYAN

Some in ad­min­is­tra­tion hope to re­vive process

Pres­i­dent Trump said Mon­day that ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban “are dead” and in­di­cated that he had no further in­ter­est in meet­ing with the group over an end to the Afghanista­n war.

“I’m not look­ing to dis­cuss it,” he said. “I’m not dis­cussing any­thing.”

Trump ap­peared to pro­vide the de­fin­i­tive re­sponse to at least one ques­tion of­fi­cials across his ad­min­is­tra­tion were strug­gling to an­swer af­ter his abrupt can­cel­la­tion, by way of Twit­ter on Satur­day evening, of a Camp David meet­ing with Tal­iban and Afghan gov­ern­ment lead­ers to fi­nal­ize an agree­ment. The meet­ing had been sched­uled for the next day.

Be­fore Trump’s com­ments, made to re­porters as he left for a cam­paign rally in North Carolina, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo was said to be hope­ful that there was still a flicker of life in the Tal­iban talks and that a way to res­tart them would emerge. In Sun­day talk show interviews, Pom­peo said the ne­go­ti­a­tions were off “for the time be­ing” but em­pha­sized the progress that had been made.

State Depart­ment ne­go­tia­tor Zal­may Khalilzad re­turned to Wash­ing­ton on Mon­day for meet­ings with se­nior of­fi­cials to dis­cuss

what had hap­pened and where to go from here.

Dis­sen­sion within the ad­min­is­tra­tion over the issue — cen­tered on Pom­peo’s sup­port for the ne­go­ti­a­tions, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton’s op­po­si­tion, and their com­pe­ti­tion for pol­icy dom­i­nance and pres­i­den­tial fa­vor — is “re­ally heat­ing up,” ac­cord­ing to a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who, like oth­ers, spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions.

A sec­ond se­nior of­fi­cial de­scribed sim­i­lar Bolton-Pom­peo ten­sions and pre­dicted that, what­ever Trump may say now, the issue of ne­go­ti­a­tions was far from dead. Just as Trump first threat­ened and then was ea­ger to talk to the lead­ers of North Korea and Iran, this of­fi­cial said, the pres­i­dent will even­tu­ally be will­ing to make a deal with the Tal­iban.

Among those try­ing to stay out of the fir­ing line, Vice Pres­i­dent Pence joined Trump in dis­put­ing re­ports that he had op­posed the Camp David meet­ing but was over­ruled by the pres­i­dent. “This Story is False!” Trump tweeted Mon­day af­ter­noon, say­ing that “the Dis­hon­est Media likes to cre­ate the look of tur­moil in the White House, of which there is none.”

“That’s Ab­so­lutely Right Mr. Pres­i­dent,” Pence tweeted in re­sponse. “More Fake News!”

The sec­ond se­nior of­fi­cial said Pence had helped talk Trump out of his ini­tial idea to hold the meet­ing with the Tal­iban at the White House and was op­posed to any meet­ing at all.

Just as the fu­ture of U.S.-Tal­iban ne­go­ti­a­tions re­mained in doubt, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials were non­com­mit­tal about whether the U.S. troop cuts the deal en­vi­sioned would go ahead.

“The num­ber of troops that we will have will al­ways be the ap­pro­pri­ate level that we need to pro­vide se­cu­rity there,” Pen­tagon spokesman Jonathan Hoff­man said. “We’re go­ing to fo­cus on the coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sion, and we’re go­ing to fo­cus on the rea­son we got into Afghanista­n in the first place, and that is to pre­vent ter­ror-op­er­a­tions or in­di­vid­u­als from us­ing Afghanista­n as a base from which to op­er­ate against the home­land.”

In Kabul, Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani called on the Tal­iban to ne­go­ti­ate with him but warned that at­tempts to in­crease its at­tacks on the ground would be met with a fe­ro­cious mil­i­tary re­sponse. For its part, the Tal­iban re­frained from public state­ments, and its ne­go­tia­tors were be­lieved to be con­sult­ing mil­i­tant lead­ers based in Quetta, Pak­istan.

No further U.S.-Tal­iban talks are sched­uled, and the nearly com­pleted agree­ment, ne­go­ti­ated by Khalilzad over the past 10 months, ap­pears dead for now. A meet­ing be­tween Afghan of­fi­cials and Tal­iban lead­ers — agreed to as part of the U.S.-Tal­iban deal and sched­uled to be held in Oslo on Sept. 23 — has been can­celed, ac­cord­ing to Euro­pean of­fi­cials who were in charge of or­ga­niz­ing it. A donors con­fer­ence to fund post-deal po­lit­i­cal talks among the Afghans, sched­uled for next week in London, is up in the air.

Talk of a cease-fire in the al­most 18-year-old war, on the agenda for the Oslo meet­ing, has now dis­ap­peared, as both the United States and the Tal­iban have pledged to step up their bat­tle­field at­tacks.

In his re­marks to re­porters, Trump claimed full credit for both set­ting up the Camp David meet­ing and can­cel­ing it.

The sub­ject was first broached, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with White House de­lib­er­a­tions, in a “prin­ci­pals only” meet­ing at the end of Au­gust. Held in the Sit­u­a­tion Room, it in­cluded Pom­peo and Khalilzad, with Bolist ton join­ing via video­con­fer­ence from over­seas.

“It was my idea,” Trump said Mon­day of invit­ing the Tal­iban and Ghani to Wash­ing­ton. “I took my own ad­vice. I like the idea of meet­ing . . . . I think meet­ing is a great thing,” he said. “Oth­er­wise, wars would never end.”

Oth­ers fa­mil­iar with the meet­ing said they could not con­firm who first brought it up. Trump said he had nixed a sug­ges­tion that it be held at the White House — which oth­ers re­called he had pro­posed him­self — be­cause “that would be a step too far.” But, he said, there was prece­dent for host­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions among war­ring for­eign­ers at Camp David.

As Khalilzad ex­plained the pact, it would al­low the ini­tial with­drawal of about 5,000 U.S. troops in ex­change for a Tal­iban com­mit­ment to break re­la­tions with al-Qaeda and a pledge that it would al­low no ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions with de­signs on the United States to ex­ist in ter­ri­tory un­der Tal­iban con­trol.

Bolton, who had op­posed the ne­go­ti­a­tions since they started last Oc­to­ber, ar­gued that Trump could with­draw the same num­ber of troops with­out any deal with the Tal­iban.

While State Depart­ment of­fi­cials came away from that Au­gust meet­ing believing that Trump — ea­ger for a cam­paign-promised with­drawal — was on board with the terms of the deal, some in­side the White House in­sisted that the pres­i­dent had never con­sid­ered it a done deal and wanted to put his own stamp on the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Bolton and oth­ers who op­posed ne­go­ti­at­ing with the Tal­iban — let alone invit­ing its lead­ers to Wash­ing­ton — con­tin­ued to raise questions about the agree­ment, not­ing that Tal­iban at­tacks had in­creased in re­cent months.

Mean­while, the State Depart­ment drew at­ten­tion to a rise in U.S.-backed Afghan gov­ern­ment at­tacks against the Tal­iban and stepped-up U.S. airstrikes. Ad­di­tional vi­o­lence was to be ex­pected in the lead-up to an agree­ment as both sides sought lever­age.

Al­though the Camp David as­pect of the talks was a closely held se­cret, those who knew about it — sup­port­ers and op­po­nents alike — wor­ried it was a bad idea. Trump’s con­cept was that he would meet sep­a­rately with Ghani and the Tal­iban lead­ers, sat­isfy them and him­self that the deal was ad­e­quate, and then an­nounce it.

The Tal­iban, queried by Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar, ex­pressed trep­i­da­tion but did not refuse. Ghani re­luc­tantly agreed, if only to avoid be­ing seen as a peace spoiler.

Trump revealed the plan in the same Satur­day night tweet that can­celed it. Far from lis­ten­ing to his ad­vis­ers, he said Mon­day, “it was my idea to ter­mi­nate it. I didn’t even dis­cuss it with any­body else.”

The rea­son, he said, both in the Satur­day tweet and Mon­day’s com­ments, was the death Thurs­day of a U.S. ser­vice mem­ber killed in a Tal­iban attack. “You can’t do that. You can’t do that with me,” Trump said. “So, they’re dead as far as I’m con­cerned,” he said of the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

But oth­ers noted that 16 Amer­i­cans have been killed by hos­tile fire this year in Afghanista­n, in­clud­ing one just a week be­fore the most re­cent death — af­ter Trump was briefed on the peace agree­ment and sent Khalilzad back to the re­gion to fi­nal­ize it.

Even as those dif­fer­ing on the wis­dom of ne­go­ti­a­tions plot­ted dif­fer­ent fu­tures, few within the ad­min­is­tra­tion mourned the can­cel­la­tion of the Camp David meet­ing. “This is a dodged bul­let,” said one se­nior of­fi­cial.

RAH­MAT GUL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Afghan sol­diers pray dur­ing a cer­e­mony in Kabul. Talk of a cease-fire in the nearly 18-year-old war has ended, and at­tacks are in­creas­ing.

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