- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the Trump administration has recalled its envoy to peace talks with the Taliban, dealing a potential death blow to negotiations that hit a low point in recent days following a suicide bombing by the militant group that killed an American soldier near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The recall of Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been holding negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar for nearly a year, came as President Trump faced mounting criticism for revealing that the administration was planning a secretive gathering at Camp David between Afghan and Taliban officials.

Mr. Trump made headlines Saturday night by announcing that he had decided at the last minute to scrap what may have been a historic meeting at the presidential retreat north of Washington after learning of the recent bombing in Kabul that killed Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, along with a Romanian soldier, and at least 10 Afghan civilians.

In a series of tweets, the president blasted the Taliban for publicly boasting that a series of recent deadly attacks, which have killed dozens of civilians and three other U.S. service members over just the past two weeks in Afghanistan, were increasing the group’s leverage at the negotiating table with Mr. Khalilzad.

Mr. Trump revealed in the tweets that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had been slated to attend the previously unreported meeting planned for Camp David — attendance that could have marked a major turning point in negotiations to end America’s 18-year military campaign in Afghanistan, since the Taliban has for years refused to recognize, let alone formally meet with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

“Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday,” Mr. Trump said. “They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations. What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?”

The flurry of developments triggered a wave of speculation about the future of the talks, as well as sharp criticism from some Republicans, who expressed outrage that Mr. Trump had secretly planned to allow Taliban leaders to visit the United States and Camp David in the first place.

The meeting would have occurred just days before the 18th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — strikes carried out by al Qaeda, whose leaders were being given safe-haven by the Taliban, which ruled Kabul at the time.

“Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11,” Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican said in a tweet. “No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Afghanistan war, was also outraged. “Never should leaders of a terrorist organization that hasn’t renounced 9/11 and continues in evil be allowed in our great country. NEVER. Full stop,” the Illinois Republican said.

Mr. Pompeo defended Mr. Trump on Sunday, saying the presidential retreat in Maryland was an “appropriate place,” given it has been the venue for Mideast peace negotiations and other diplomatic meetings in the past.

Appearing on five Sunday TV talk shows, Mr. Pompeo said Mr. Trump wanted to look the Taliban leaders “in the eye” while Mr. Khalilzad worked to finalize an agreement that would allow the U.S. to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

The talks toward such a withdrawal have for months represented a sticky backdrop to the president’s campaign promise to bring a close to America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East. Despite horrific Taliban attacks over the months, the administration had — prior to this weekend — been forging ahead with the talks, even as disagreement over their direction spilled into the open among some of Mr. Trump’s top advisors.

Early drafts of a tentative peace deal reportedly would’ve seen roughly 5,400 of the 14,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan come home, along with the shuttering of five American military bases in the country. In exchange, the Taliban, which currently controls significant territory outside Kabul, would guarantee that Afghanistan will never again be used as a base from which terrorist groups can attack the West.

But there was little indication the group would accept a formal ceasefire. And, while Mr. Khalilzad held his most recent meeting with Taliban leaders in Qatar on Friday, there were signs of mounting opposition to a much-anticipated deal inside the White House, the State Department and at the Pentagon.

Mr. Pompeo, for instance, reportedly refused to sign a tentative draft agreement after Taliban representatives had demanded that Afghanistan be recognized by Washington as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the name by which the country was known in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

On Sunday, Mr. Pompeo said the Taliban had “overreached” with its most recent car bomb attack and that it will now be up to the militant group to decide whether talks can resume. “They tried to use terror to improve their negotiating position,” the secretary of state said, adding that Taliban representatives had also “failed to live up to a series of commitments that they had made.”

The most recent attack was not the first since talks with the Taliban began and, Mr. Pompeo said Sunday that U.S. forces have also been attacking the militants. He said more than 1,000 Taliban fighters have been killed in battle during the past 10 days alone, although it was unclear whether he meant they were killed by American airstrikes or by Afghan security forces, who’ve been on the front lines since the U.S. military ended its combat mission in Afghanistan 2014.

Over the past five years, the American troops remaining in the country have been training, advising and assisting the Afghan forces.

The Afghan government said Sunday that it did not believe Taliban talks would continue “at this stage.”

Taliban representatives also cast a negative light, asserting that Americans will be the ones who suffer. “Both sides were preparing for the announcement and signing of the agreement,” the militant group said in a statement, according to The Associated Press.

The statement said Taliban representatives had been invited to the United States in late August, but wanted to wait until the deal was ready to be signed. Now, it said, “we will continue the ongoing jihad (against foreign occupation) and we firmly believe in the ultimate victory.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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