KABUL — Afghan officials, commentators and citizens overwhelmingly welcomed on Sunday President Trump’s announcement that he was canceling a planned secret meeting with Afghan and Taliban leaders at Camp David, effectively calling off the troubled U.S.-Taliban peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year conflict.
It was as if a poisoned bubble had suddenly burst, releasing both relief and hope into the air after weeks of mounting tension and suspicion — even as it created new fears over what would come next.
The days leading up to Trump’s bombshell move had been filled with a confused mix of signals from both Taliban and U.S. leaders. Insurgent violence had intensified as U.S. negotiators said they were nearing an agreement. American politicians, military figures and diplomats had warned that a bad deal aimed primarily at removing U.S. troops from the country could lead to disaster.
“There is definitely a silver lining to this. There was total confusion before,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based analyst. “Everyone was afraid the U.S. would sign a cease-fire but the Taliban would continue their war against the Afghan government and people. Now President Trump has personally rectified this with his own tweet.”
Few Afghans had trusted the closed-door process from the beginning, fearing that the U.S. government would make too many concessions to the insurgents, giving them free rein to return to extremist Islamic rule and allowing Afghan democratic rights and personal freedoms to be sacrificed.
President Ashraf Ghani, who had fumed for months about being excluded from the talks, prepared to fly to Washington this weekend without public explanation, but the trip was then postponed. Most observers here had assumed he was going to express his concerns about the proposed peace settlement.
Trump’s tweet, however, disclosed that a secret meeting had been in the works that would bring Taliban leaders face-to-face with Ghani and his senior aides. He tweeted that he had canceled it due to the most recent Taliban attack Thursday, a bombing near the U.S. Embassy here that killed 10 Afghans, one U.S. service member and one Romanian soldier. It was not clear whether Taliban leaders had agreed to the meeting or not.
On Sunday, Ghani’s government quickly welcomed Trump’s announcement, saying it coincided with official concerns here that the Taliban were manipulating the peace process and reiterating the government’s long-standing insistence that only direct bilateral talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders could bring about an enduring and substantive settlement.
Sediq Sediqqi, the chief spokesman for Ghani, said Trump’s decision “showed he has a proper understanding of the situation and sees that the Taliban are not committed to peace.” He added that the government was grateful to the United States for its efforts, but that now the Taliban must “stop killing Afghans and agree to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. We have always been behind a meaningful peace process and we will always be the implementer of that process.”
But later Sunday, at a news conference, Sediqqi said direct talks among Afghans could not begin any time soon because of ongoing attacks. “We do not have conditions for talks, but peace has conditions,” he said. “How is it possible to sit in talks and continue the violence?” He said the Taliban had been enjoying a “honeymoon” in Qatar while “cheating Afghanistan and the world. This needs to come to an end.”
Several of Ghani’s rivals in a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28 expressed similar comments after offering to quit the race if needed in the interests of peace. Many Afghans have called for the polls to be postponed, but Sediqqi said they would still be held on schedule. Ghani has been running hard for reelection to a five-year term despite Taliban threats to attack the polls.
“It is time for the Taliban to step forward, stop the bloodshed, announce a cease-fire and start direct talks with the Afghan side,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a candidate and former national intelligence chief.
There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban to Trump’s statement, but late Saturday night a spokesman for the group based in Qatar, where the U.S.-Taliban talks have been held, sent out a tweet hinting at fatal problems with the talks and indicating that the group would seek other avenues for negotiations among Afghans.
“So far there has not been a settlement of the interstate talks. There may be numerous inter-Afghan talks in different countries,” spokesman Sohail Shaheen tweeted. “There has not been a decision where to go next.” In a separate tweet he said “there is enmity with the ongoing peace process.”
There was no immediate indication that the insurgents would stop or slow their attacks, which have killed scores of people in the capital and across the country in suicide bombings and ground assaults during the past two weeks. Some analysts warned that the insurgents might even intensify their attacks in the wake of Trump’s sudden change of policy.
There were reports Sunday that the Taliban had stepped up attacks in northern Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, possibly blocking a major highway to Kabul. The insurgents, who are based in the Afghan south, launched offensives in both strategic provinces over the past two weeks, likely seeking leverage at the now-cancelled talks.
Trump’s announcement came just before a week of public religious observances and political events that could be targets for further violence. Monday is the death anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban militia leader who was assassinated in 2001. Tuesday is the emotional peak day of Muharram, a Shiite religious mourning period, when Shiite mosques and communities have been attacked in previous years.
“A lot of Afghans are happy about Trump’s tweets because they may stop a bad deal with the Taliban, but they ignore the fact that there is a fundamental lack of strategy in Afghanistan that could prolong and exacerbate the bloody conflict,” tweeted Haroun Rahaimi, a law instructor at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. “I fear for what may come next!”
Some prominent Afghans took a hard line against the Taliban Sunday, saying the insurgents should never be forgiven for their wanton attacks on civilians, and that they had used the bilateral peace process as an excuse to show military might, while never abandoning the desire to return to power.
“The Taliban were never interested in peace … they just kept killing people indiscriminately to get a stronger bargaining position,” tweeted Raihana Azad, a member of parliament from Daikundi province. “Now the government should ask for the extradition of the Taliban based in Qatar. They should stand trial for all the atrocities they have committed.”
Some Afghans expressed anger with Trump for saying he had decided to cancel the talks because of Thursday’s attack that killed a U.S. soldier, even after months of Taliban violence that killed and wounded hundreds of Afghan civilians. Analysts here, however, said the recent attack was mostly an excuse for the president to abandon the increasingly troubled negotiations.
“American life matters for the U.S., but it is not important for them if Afghans are dying like lambs,” said Ahmad Shah Aria, 23, an economics student at a university in Kabul. In any case, he said, Trump’s decision will not stop the insurgent attacks. “Violence has been intense during the talks, and it will intensify if the talks stop.”
Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.