KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel Afghan peace talks will cost more American lives, the Taliban said on Sunday while the United States promised to keep up military pressure on the militants, in a stunning reversal of efforts to forge a deal ending nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan.
The Islamist group issued a statement hours after Trump unexpectedly canceled planned secret talks with the Taliban’s “major leaders” at the presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. He broke off the talks after the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul last week that killed an American soldier and 11 others.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, criticized Trump for calling off the dialogue and said U.S. forces have been pounding Afghanistan with attacks at the same time.
“This will lead to more losses to the U.S.,” he said in a statement. “Its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Afghan peace talks were on hold and Washington would not withdraw troops from the region until it was convinced the Taliban could follow through on any significant commitments.
The United States has recalled U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad to chart the path forward, Pompeo said in appearances on Sunday TV news shows. Asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether Afghan talks were dead, Pompeo said, “For the time being they are.”
Trump has long wanted to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan – since his days as a candidate – and American diplomats have been talking with Taliban representatives for months about a plan to withdraw thousands of American troops in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators struck a draft peace deal last week that could have led to a drawdown of troops from America’s longest war. There are currently 14,000 U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops in the country, 18 years after its invasion by a U.S.-led coalition following the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
Fighting in Afghanistan has continued amid the talks and recent assaults by the Taliban cast doubts over the draft deal.
CAMP DAVID SURPRISE
Asked about the Camp David meeting scheduled for Sunday, Pompeo said Trump decided to get personally involved to get the agreement to the finish line.
“President Trump ultimately made the decision,” Pompeo told Fox. “He said, ‘I want to talk to (President) Ashraf Ghani. I want to talk to these Taliban negotiators. I want to look them in the eye. I want to see if we can get to the final outcome we needed.’”
Trump was criticized, even by some fellow Republicans, for having offered to host on U.S. soil a militant group that has killed American troops and had sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Republican U.S. Representatives Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney said the Taliban were still fighting Americans and harboring its enemies.
“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,” Cheney, whose father, Dick Cheney, was U.S. vice president at the time of the attacks, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever.”
Americans will on Wednesday mark the 18th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched assaults over the past week that included a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday that killed U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.
Pompeo said the United States will not let up on military support for Afghan troops until the Taliban take the necessary steps to show they are serious about peace.
Earlier this month, senior security officials in Kabul said joint air raids by U.S. and Afghan forces against the Taliban have not subsided. Pompeo said more than 1,000 Taliban fighters have been killed in Afghanistan in the last 10 days.
“If the Taliban don’t behave, if they don’t deliver on the commitments that they’ve made to us now for weeks, and in some cases months, the president is not going to reduce the pressure, we’re not going to reduce our support for the Afghan security forces that have fought so hard there in Afghanistan,” Pompeo said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We’re not just going to withdraw because there’s a timeline,” he said.
Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Doina Chiacu, Valerie Volcovici and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Howard Goller