Days after U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz and eleven civilians were killed in a Kabul suicide bombing – for which the Taliban claimed responsibility – President Trump said Monday that peace talks between the United States and Taliban leaders are dead.
So what comes next for war-ravaged Afghanistan and U.S. involvement in the war there that has raged for the past 18 years?
“The entire Afghan policy is currently in upheaval. What happens next depends on whether Trump will listen to Secretary Pompeo, who still believes a deal with the Taliban is the right thing,” Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, told Fox News. “Or the growing chorus, including among influential Trump supporters, who oppose a bad deal with the Taliban.”
Roggio surmised that if the president does follow the advice of his secretary of state, talks could resume in a couple weeks. If not, the military will likely withdraw a number of troops without any agreement in place.
“To be clear, the US is under no obligation to make a deal with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan,” he stressed.
But in sharp contrast to the calm that inking a deal with the hardline Islamist faction was supposed to bring, Trump also tweeted Monday that over the past four days, the United States has "been hitting our enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years."
For the past twelve months, the U.S Special Envoy and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had been hammering terms of an agreement in Doha, Qatar. Late last month – following nine intense rounds of talks – a deal reportedly reached its final stage, designed to bring an end to the U.S’s protracted engagement in Afghanistan.
According to news reports, the now sidelined accord was said to have stipulated the exit of 14,000 American forces through to the end of 2020. In exchange, the Taliban pledged that it would not allow the conflict-wracked nation to be a safe haven for terrorist groups that threatened the security of the U.S.
But the speed with which the fragile dialogue fell apart has caught experts and analysts by surprise.
“A little over a week ago, there was little opposition to the (peace) deal. Trump was right to halt it, it was a bad deal that absolves the Taliban’s role in providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda prior to and after 9/11," Roggio said. "It would have been a humiliating defeat for the United States.”
Despite the efforts to reach a diplomatic conclusion to the stalemated conflict, Taliban-inspired attacks have continued with jarring frequency in recent months.
“With or without a large U.S. presence, the current civil war with the Taliban goes on. Kabul still controls vast internal security forces who can hold territory, and there is still foreign aid and logistical support coming in – China and India want a stable government in Afghanistan,” noted Miguel Miranda, an expert analyst in military technology in Asia. “This means the Afghan government won’t crumble overnight. But the Taliban can keep fighting, keep trying to capture cities and subvert local authorities. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Miranda suspects the talks will resume at some point – likely after next month’s presidential elections in Afghanistan – with a deal centered on four conditions.
“The Taliban will not harbor terrorist groups, a U.S/NATO exit from the country, national dialogue for peace and a permanent ceasefire and a ‘normal’ country,” he conjectured.
Nonetheless, the negotiations have been fodder for criticism since they started, in large part because the Kabul government was not granted a seat at the table. The Taliban has maintained that the Ashraf Ghani leadership are not the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan and refused their participation.
Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin H. Friedman does not anticipate the now frozen arrangement to change the calculus.
“The United States will likely proceed with the initial withdrawal of forces regardless of the deal’s status, but it’s hard to say given the president’s fickleness,” he said. “We should proceed with a withdrawal with or without the Taliban’s permission since that is what is in our best interest.”
According to a well-placed U.S. defense source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, a deal is not likely to be revived in the immediate future, in spite of the insistence of some U.S. officials that it isn’t all over.
“The Taliban will use this as propaganda, and many in the U.S. seem quite comfortable with the prospect of just sending in black ops when things pop up,” the source noted. “People are just tired of the whole situation and the president certainly doesn’t want it to become a campaign issue. I think we are going back to small hits and less (nation) building.”
The view from Afghanistan is a mixture of both relief and concern, with many taken aback by Washington's secret plan to host the Taliban delegation in Camp David this week, within days of the anniversary of 9/11, before Trump's weekend announcement he was pulling the plug.
“The news of the Camp David meeting was shocking, and an insult to our terrorism victims. We’re thankful President Trump canceled it,” said Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan military attaché in London. “But they will continue. The Taliban will try to increase its terror reign and kill more Afghan Army and U.S. troops.”
Sanjar Sohail, the publisher of Kabul’s Hasht e daily newspaper, concurred that the move to squash the secret meeting on American soil was the right one.
“The entire negotiations were a mistake from the start. It provided recognition and legitimacy to the Taliban, and we were worried after the last round of talks ended that the U.S. was going to abandon us,” he said. “There needs to be a ceasefire, the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”
But in the meantime, Afghans caught in the crossfire are bracing for an uptick in violence. And while the U.S. position going forward remains obscure, the Taliban hasn’t minced words – cautioning that the suspension of talks “will harm America more than anyone else.”
“It will damage its reputation, unmask its anti-peace policy to the world, even more, increase its loss of life and treasure and present its political interactions as erratic,” the organization said in a statement. “Such a reaction towards a single attack just before the signing of an agreement displays a lack of composure and experience.”
And at least for the near future, Afghanistan’s bloodletting will continue.
“We will accept nothing less than the complete end of occupation and allowing Afghans to decide their own fate,” the Taliban added. “And we shall continue our jihad for this great cause and maintain our strong belief in ultimate victory, Allah willing.”