WASHINGTON – Did the Taliban ever intend to come to Camp David this weekend, as President Trump claimed?
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo insisted Sunday that the president had called off secretly planned talks at the presidential retreat in Maryland with leaders of the Afghan militant group that sheltered Osama bin Laden as he masterminded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and that has fought U.S. forces ever since.
But the Taliban disputed that, saying its leaders had refused to come until the United States had signed an agreement hammered out by negotiators over the past year in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. Trump instead said he was calling off further negotiations.
Either way, Trump’s abrupt disclosure of plans to meet at Camp David with the Taliban and, separately, with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, drew unusual barbs from Republican lawmakers who traditionally support the president.
“Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al-Qaida, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever,” tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who is third-ranking in GOP House leadership and the eldest daughter of Dick Cheney, who was vice president during the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Never should leaders of a terrorist organization that has not renounced 9/11 and continues in evil be allowed in our great country. Never. Full stop,” agreed Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan.
The president’s surprise announcement, and the swift emergence of competing versions of events, was in keeping with Trump’s impulsive-seeming and highly personalized style of handling complex international diplomacy.
It also fit with his consistent efforts to present himself as calling the shots, whether in fruitless attempts to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons, win trade concessions from Chinese President Xi Jinping or navigate growing tensions with Tehran by calling for a meeting with Iran’s president.
U.S. negotiators indicated last week that an accord with the Taliban was imminent, but sources close to the militant group’s leadership said the talks had bogged down over a U.S. demand that the group declare a nationwide cease-fire. The Taliban countered with an offer to suspend attacks only in areas of Afghanistan from which U.S. forces withdrew.
The sources also said the Taliban negotiating team was also pushing back against U.S. plans to continue supporting Afghan security forces fighting the militants.
At the same time, Taliban fighters have continued to mount deadly attacks. In addition to two car bombs last week in Kabul, human rights groups blamed the Taliban for the killing of a human rights official who was found dead last week in Wardak province.
Those attacks, along with a renewed offensive against Afghan government forces in the northern state of Kunduz, were part of the Taliban’s strategy of using violence to improve their negotiating position, said sources close to the militant group’s leadership.
Appearing on several Sunday news shows, Pompeo repeated Trump’s contention that the president had scrubbed the proposed Camp David meeting and called off further negotiations with the Taliban because of Thursday’s car bomb in the Afghan capital that killed 12 people, including a U.S. service member. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
“It made no sense for the Taliban to be rewarded for that kind of bad behavior,” Pompeo said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
He suggested that the U.S. and its allies also had stepped up its attacks in recent days, however. “We’ve killed over a thousand Taliban in just the last 10 days,” he said.
Pompeo also defended the idea of meeting with the Taliban a few days before the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. He acknowledged still-painful sensitivities surrounding the anniversary but pointed to Camp David’s historic role as a venue for difficult negotiations.
“You know the history of Camp David – lots of bad folks have come through that place,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Pompeo did not respond directly when asked, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” whether factors other than Thursday’s car bomb were involved in the abrupt cancellation. “As we approached this decision point in the discussions … they blow up – and blow up Kabul, and kill an American,” he said.
Apparently referring to that attack, the Taliban said in a statement that Trump’s reaction to “a solitary incident is indicative of a lack of courage and experience.” The president’s actions, the group claimed, would cause the United States to “lose integrity” and “expose their anti-peace stance to the world.”
Even so, the Taliban said they expected the negotiations would resume in Qatar, and expressed readiness to begin talks as early as this month with the Afghan government over a possible political resolution of the country’s long civil war.
The Taliban have refused to hold formal talks with the government, which they consider illegitimate, but the Qatar deal was supposed to set the stage for subsequent talks in Norway between the Taliban and other Afghans, including government representatives.
Afghan government officials greeted Trump’s decision to scrap the Camp David meeting with relief. Many of them worry the U.S. is rushing into a peace agreement so Trump could fulfill his pledges to withdraw troops before the 2020 presidential election.
Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Ghani, tweeted that the Afghan government should lead the peace process.
“We have consistently stressed that genuine peace is possible when the Taliban stop the killing of Afghans, embrace an inclusive ceasefire, and enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government,” he wrote.
Staff writer King reported from Washington and staff writer Bengali from Chennai, India. Special correspondent Aoun Sahi contributed from Islamabad, Pakistan.
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