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Sunday September 22nd, 2019 8:50PM

Trump calls off secret meeting with Taliban, Afghan leaders

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Saturday he canceled a secret weekend meeting at Camp David with Taliban and Afghanistan leaders after a bombing in the past week in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier, and has called off peace negotiations with the insurgent group.

Trump's tweet was surprising because it would mean that the president was ready to host members of the Taliban at the presidential retreat in Maryland just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. More than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to go after the Taliban, which were harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for 9/11.

Canceling the talks also goes against Trump's pledge to withdraw the remaining 13,000 to 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan and close U.S. involvement in the conflict that is closing in on 18 years.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's diplomat talking to the Taliban leaders for months, has said recently that he was on the "threshold" of an agreement with the Taliban aimed at ending America's longest war. The president, however, has been under pressure from the Afghan government and some lawmakers, including Trump supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who mistrust the Taliban and think it's too early to withdraw American forces.

"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," Trump tweeted Saturday evening.

"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," he wrote.

On Thursday, a Taliban car bomb exploded and killed an American soldier, a Romanian service member and 10 civilians in a busy diplomatic area near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The bombing was one of many attacks by the Taliban in recent days during U.S.-Taliban talks.

The Defense Department says Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Morovis, Puerto Rico, was killed in action when the explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was the fourth U.S. service member killed in the past two weeks in Afghanistan.

"What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn't, they only made it worse!" Trump tweeted. "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. How many more decades are they willing to fight?"

It remains unclear if the U.S.-Taliban talks are over or only paused. Trump said he called off the peace negotiations after the bombing, but Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy negotiating with the Taliban, was meeting with leaders of the insurgent group in Doha, Qatar, on both Thursday and Friday.

The State Department and the White House declined to respond to requests for clarification. There was no immediate response from the Afghan government as Kabul woke up hours after Trump's announcement.

Many in the Afghan government, which has been sidelined from the U.S.-Taliban talks, and among the Afghan people have been skeptical of the negotiations, fearing there was little if nothing in the deal to stop the Taliban from continuing its attacks against civilians. The two shattering Taliban car bombings in Kabul in the past week, which the insurgent group said targeted foreigners but killed far more civilians, renewed those fears.

Longtime Afghanistan watchers, including former U.S. officials, apparently didn't see this twist coming. After word emerged that a Washington visit by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had been postponed, some assumed Ghani had been trying to make a last-minute effort to meet Trump to express concerns about the nearing deal.

"Whatever was the reason for inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David and whatever the real reason for pulling the plug, the peace process has been disrupted at least for the moment," said Laurel Miller, Asia director for International Crisis Group.

"After all the violence during many months of negotiations, it's difficult to see why last Thursday's attack would be the sole reason for changing course. This could be a blow to the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the peace process. Hopefully it can be brought back on track because there's no better alternative," Miller said.

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Associated Press writer Cara Anna in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that the death toll in last Thursday's bombing in Kabul was 12, not 11.

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