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U.S. Recalls Special Envoy After Trump Cancels Secret Afghan Peace Talks

The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan's peace process and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad (left), meeting with Afghan CEO Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on July 24
The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan's peace process and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad (left), meeting with Afghan CEO Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on July 24

WASHINGTON -- The United States has recalled its chief envoy involved in Afghan peace talks with the Taliban, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump canceled a secret meeting that was to include leaders of the militant group, which carried out a recent car bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. soldier.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced during television appearances on September 8 that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan who has been negotiating with the Taliban, had been recalled and indicated that the peace talks were over for the time being.

He said the Taliban had "overreached" with the car-bomb attack that prompted Trump's decision, and said it was up to the militants to "change their behavior."

The "Taliban demonstrated either that they weren't willing to or couldn't live up to the commitment they needed to...reduce violence there," Pompeo told Fox News.

In a series of tweets on September 7, Trump said he had planned to hold the talks with the two sides at Camp David just days before the anniversary of 9/11, a date that marks the deadliest terrorist attacks in the United States' history which were carried out by Al-Qaeda, whose leaders were harbored by the Taliban.

Trump accused the Taliban of trying to increase their negotiating leverage by carrying out the September 5 car bombing that took place in a neighborhood that is home to embassies, government buildings, and the local NATO headquarters.

"If they cannot agree to a cease-fire 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," Trump said in a tweet.

The Taliban responded by saying in a statement on September 8 that the decision would "harm the United State more than anyone else and will undermine its credibility."

The militant group said it had set a date to start intra-Afghan dialogue, a key element of the peace negotiations, and expressed hope that the peace talks would resume.

Pompeo called the Taliban's response "a lot of people bluster," while noting that the United States doesn't "want any loss of American life" and that U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan have "the full authority to do what they need" to protect American lives.

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani's office earlier blamed the Taliban for the development, saying real peace was only possible when the Taliban halted violence and held direct talks with the government.

"Real peace will come when the Taliban agree to a cease-fire," Ghani's officials said in a statement.

Trump is seeking to end the nearly 18-year conflict in Afghanistan and pull U.S. troops out of the country to fulfill a campaign promise he made in 2016. Trump is running for reelection in 2020.

The Taliban has to date rejected negotiations with the Afghan government, seeing it as a puppet of the United States.

Taliban fighters now control more territory than at any time since the war started in 2001. The militant group had been stepping up operations in recent days just as U.S. and Taliban negotiators appeared to be closing in on an accord to end the fighting.

Early on September 6, the Taliban launched an offensive against the western city of Farah -- the third provincial capital to come under attack in less than a week.

The bombings came as the U.S. envoy negotiating with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, reached an agreement "in principle" with the militant group following nine rounds of talks in Qatar.

An Afghan cabinet minister who asked not to be named told RFE/RL on September 6 that the U.S. government had canceled Ghani's planned trip to Camp David.

Ghani's office said it was committed to working together with the United States and allies for a "dignified and long-lasting peace" and emphasized the importance of the September 28 presidential election.

Ghani is seeking a second tenure in the upcoming vote, but the Taliban want the elections to be cancelled as a precondition to signing a peace accord with the Americans.

The Ghani administration supports "a strong, legitimate, and legal government through the upcoming elections to take the ongoing peace process forward with complete accuracy and prudence," the statement said.

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