Trump Says He’s Called Off Negotiations With Taliban After Afghanistan Bombing

President Trump said on Saturday that he had canceled a secret meeting at Camp David with Taliban leaders and the president of Afghanistan and was calling off monthslong negotiations that had appeared to be nearing a peace agreement.

“Unbeknownst to almost everyone,” Mr. Trump wrote in a series of tweets, Taliban leaders and the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, were headed to the United States on Saturday for what would have been a politically fraught meeting at the president’s official Camp David retreat in Maryland.

But Mr. Trump said that “in order to build false leverage,” the Taliban had admitted to a suicide car bomb attack on Thursday that had killed an American soldier and 11 others in the capital of Kabul. “I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote.

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Mr. Trump added. “How many more decades are they willing to fight?”

The president’s announcement was startling for multiple reasons. A surprise summit at Camp David with leaders of an insurgent group that has killed thousands of Americans since the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan would have been a sensational diplomatic gambit, on par with Mr. Trump’s meetings with the once-reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. A senior administration official said the meeting had been planned for Monday, just two days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were plotted from Afghanistan and led to the United States’ invasion of the country.

Mr. Trump’s statement also appears to scuttle — for now — his longstanding hope to deliver on a campaign promise to withdraw American troops from an 18-year conflict that he has called an aimless boondoggle.

It comes amid stubborn resistance within Afghanistan’s government about the peace agreement that had been under discussion, not only for security reasons but also because Mr. Ghani has been determined to preserve a planned Sept. 28 election, which he is favored to win. The Taliban have insisted on postponing the election before proceeding with negotiations with the Afghan government.

Several people familiar with the diplomacy between the Trump administration and the Taliban puzzled over Mr. Trump’s stated decision to cancel peace negotiations entirely in response to one American casualty, however tragic. The Taliban had not agreed to halt their attacks on Americans in advance of a formal agreement. That raised the question of whether Mr. Trump might have been looking for a pretext because the talks had run into trouble.

The development is sure to inflame a Washington political debate about the talks that until now had largely played out in national security circles to little public fanfare. Mr. Trump had been coming under growing pressure from conservatives not to hastily exit the country while many leading Democrats have said they support peace talks leading to an American withdrawal.

Many details of the scrapped Camp David meeting were unclear on Saturday night. The senior Trump administration official said that the decision to cancel the meeting had been made on Thursday, but that Mr. Trump had delayed his announcement. On Friday, Afghan officials confirmed that Mr. Ghani postponed a planned meeting in Washington. One person familiar with the diplomacy said that the plan for a Taliban visit to Washington had not been under discussion until about a week ago. (Taliban representatives have not yet confirmed that they ever planned to attend such a meeting.)

It was also unclear whether Mr. Trump’s halt to the peace negotiations would be permanent. The president has reversed such decisions in short order before. In May 2018, for instance, he abruptly canceled his second summit with Mr. Kim, only to reschedule it days later. But several people familiar with the Afghan talks said on Saturday that it could be difficult to restart them.

The negotiations have been underway since last winter, when Mr. Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, began regular trips to Doha, Qatar, for grueling sessions with Taliban representatives. United States and foreign officials said that the talks had reached an advanced stage and, until Saturday night, that an agreement with the Pashtun insurgent group that once harbored the Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was close at hand.

In nine rounds of negotiations, Mr. Khalilzad painstakingly worked toward what was described as a phased peace agreement — initially a deal between the United States and the Taliban that would open the door for direct negotiations between the Afghan sides, before all of it came together into a final Afghan peace deal.

Mr. Khalilzad had proposed drawing down American military troops in exchange for a partial cease-fire by the Taliban. In a recent interview with the Afghan channel ToloNews, he said 5,400 United States forces would leave Afghanistan within 135 days of a signed agreement.

Under that tentative deal, the number of American troops would have initially been reduced to about what it was when Mr. Trump took office in 2017.

As for the remaining 8,600 American forces, they would have left according to a gradual timeline, perhaps within 16 months.

That would have allowed Mr. Trump, who has been routinely critical of expensive American interventions in the Muslim world, to declare that he had ended a long and increasingly unpopular conflict, and to boast that he had achieved an outcome his predecessor, President Barack Obama, sought in vain.

Critics of the nascent agreement — including the former American commander in Afghanistan, the retired Army general, David H. Petraeus — had warned that it could lead to the return of Al Qaeda. Several invoked the cautionary example of Mr. Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq, which many national security experts blame for the 2014 emergence of the Islamic State in that country.

And in a Sept. 3 statement published by the Atlantic Council, nine former senior American diplomats with extensive experience in Afghanistan warned that a “major withdrawal of U.S. forces should follow, not come in advance of real peace agreement.” Anarchy in Afghanistan after a premature American exit “could prove catastrophic for U.S. national security” and would “underscore to potential enemies that the United States and its allies are not reliable,” the statement said.

Such critics have pointed to a recent wave of Taliban attacks as a sign that the insurgent group cannot set aside violence. The bombing cited by the president involved a car bomb detonated on Thursday at a checkpoint near the American Embassy in Kabul.

Afghan government officials who have been briefed on the negotiations privately said Mr. Khalilzad did not force enough concessions from the Taliban to ensure stability as the American military leaves Afghanistan.

One official said the agreement between Mr. Khalilzad and the Taliban would not have assured national elections on Sept. 28, as Mr. Ghani has demanded. Rather than requiring a nationwide cease-fire, it calls for a reduction of violence in Kabul and Parwan. And, the Afghan government official said, it may allow the Taliban to continue referring to itself in official conduct as the “Islamic Emirate” — as it did when the extremist group was ruling Afghanistan with fear.

If anything, said one Afghan official, the negotiations appear to have only emboldened the Taliban. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to more frankly discuss the closed-door briefings.

Hours after the Thursday bombing in Kabul, Mr. Khalilzad and the top commander in Kabul arrived for a surprise meeting with the Taliban in Doha. They went straight into unexpected and unannounced talks that lasted into the early morning.

It was unclear what they were negotiating when the special envoy had declared the agreement was final “in principle.” Officials at the time refused to confirm that it was related to the uptick in violence.

One Western official said a deal had been nearly at hand but appeared to have been jeopardized by showmanship. Now it has created an environment where the Taliban, as well as a skeptical region that includes Iran and Russia, will conclude that no process with the Americans can be trusted, the official said.

“So what comes next in terms of strategic policy options? The two main ones seem to be either keeping the current troop footprint in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, which Trump clearly doesn’t want to do, or start to draw down anyway, but thus without getting any concessions for it,” said Dan Feldman, who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration. “That seems like the worst possible result — withdrawing immediately and irresponsibly, leaving both a security and political vacuum.”