Trump gets wiser about the Taliban

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

US President Donald Trump’s announcement calling off talks with the Taliban was long overdue. Nine rounds of talks, which began in October last year, produced a draft accord that was announced only a week prior to Trump’s decision to turn his back on it. That accord provided for the withdrawal of some 5,400 American troops from Afghanistan over a five-month period in return for Taliban guarantees that it would not allow terror attacks on the US and its allies to be staged from Afghanistan. The accord was widely criticized as it was silent on the question of a Taliban ceasefire or future intra-Afghan talks. It was aimed only at providing the US with a safe exit from Afghanistan rather than at putting in place a process to ensure long-term peace. Trump has said that the killing of an American soldier by a Taliban suicide bomber on Thursday prompted him to cancel the talks, including a planned secret meeting on Sunday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban leaders at Camp David. He says that the talks with the Taliban are “dead.” While that suggests that the end of talks is final, it is possible, given Trump’s record, that it is only a tactical move aimed at denying Taliban negotiating advantage.

The US should have from the start prioritized the question of a Taliban ceasefire. Instead, throughout the talks the Taliban continued to unleash horrific violence not only on the Afghan security forces but also on civilians. In fact, civilians accounted for most of the fatalities caused by the Taliban since the talks began. Those fatalities soared in July and August even as a deal seemed imminent. Its deadly attacks hours after the American negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad briefed the Afghan President on the draft deal and even as the latter was outlining the deal to the Afghan people in a televised interview signalled the Taliban’s utter contempt for the peace process and the draft accord.

The US should have called off the talks months ago. It did not, hoping that the Taliban would play along with the script written in Washington. The Trump administration was hoping for a deal that would enable American troops to pull out ahead of presidential elections next year, boosting Trump’s re-election chances. The Taliban has always had other plans. It had no intention of waiting till the US elections to consolidate its grip in Afghanistan. The US should now apply pressure on Pakistan and the Saudis to get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and to a timetable for comprehensive peace talks with the Afghan government.

 

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