After U.S.-Taliban Peace Talks Cancelled, Uncertain Path Ahead for Afghanistan

On Sunday, President Trump announced in a series of Tweets that the Afghanistan peace talks have been discontinued until further notice. The sudden reversal comes after a car bombing by the Taliban on the morning of September 5, which left a U.S. service member, Sgt. 1st Class Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, dead -- the fourth U.S. casualty in just over a week and the sixteenth this year. Notably, the bombing was carried out on the same day that U.S. special negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced a potential agreement with the Taliban to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, pending the approval of President Trump. The possibility of such an agreement is now gone, with President Trump canceling a scheduled Sunday meeting at Camp David that would have involved senior Taliban leaders and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made appearances on multiple television news networks to confirm that the peace talks have been called off completely for the time being, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd: “We’ve recalled Ambassador Khalilzad back to Washington.” Secretary Pompeo also shrugged off criticism from Republican and Democrat leaders that the talks would have been held on U.S. territory with Taliban leaders, despite the fact that the group has openly continued to express support for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Taliban harshly condemned the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the peace talks, warning that U.S. “credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase.”

The irony of the peace talks in Afghanistan is that they have not helped so far to reduce the violence of the war. With no ceasefire in place, the Taliban has ramped up attacks against U.S. and Afghan military forces in an effort to gain more territory and strengthen its bargaining position ahead of any potential agreement. The September 5 bombing, which also killed 11 others in addition to Sgt. Ortiz, is only the latest in a string of many other attacks carried out by the Taliban since the peace talks began progressing in July 2018. Just five days earlier on September 2, a Taliban truck bombing struck Kabul’s Green Village compound and killed at least 16 people. Around the same time, the Taliban was also leading offensives to capture Pul-i-Kumri and Kunduz, two cities north of Kabul which are currently controlled by Afghan government forces.

The escalation of conflict has not been one-sided. In April 2019, a UN report revealed that NATO-led forces in the first three months of 2019 had for the first time ever killed more civilians in Afghanistan than the Taliban, due in large part to an intensifying airstrike campaign. According to Borhan Osman, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the Crisis Group, “The numbers of killed, injured and displaced have risen steadily since 2001.” In multiple interviews on Sunday, Secretary Pompeo stated that U.S.-supported forces had killed over 1,000 members of the Taliban in the past 10 days alone. Despite nine rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks, peace in Afghanistan has remained elusive. The Afghan government has questioned the Taliban’s commitment to peace and grown increasingly skeptical of the process, which it has not felt adequately included in. 

With the country’s presidential election approaching on September 28, the country appears set for a turbulent month ahead. Nevertheless, President Ghani has called for a renewal of the peace talks and a reduction of violence, insisting that, “Peace without a ceasefire is impossible.”

While the path forward for Afghanistan remains unclear, all parties to the conflict would do well to heed Ghani’s request. If the Taliban is not prepared to accept a ceasefire in advance of the upcoming elections, then it seems unlikely that they are willing to settle for anything less than full control of the country. After all, peace must be an everyday commitment, not an endless series of talks or a collection of signatures on a piece of paper.