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Trump calling off Taliban talks helps no one

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Florian Weigand
September 8, 2019

The US president's surprise announcement has stalled negotiations. But neither the US nor the Taliban can risk scrapping the troop pullout deal entirely — the consequences would be dire for both, says Florian Weigand.

Afghan delegation at talks in Doha
Image: AFP/K. Jaafar

In recent weeks, the Taliban have killed dozens of Afghans. And despite this grisly record, US President Donald Trump would have nevertheless met and shook hands with the Islamists today. Yet when news broke that a US soldier had been killed in yet another Taliban attack, US President Donald Trump called off the planned meeting — and thus ruled out the possibility of signing off on the US-Taliban deal.

Granted, weighing up the dead according to their nationality is a cynical thing to do — but it's exactly what Trump is doing on Twitter. He knows full well that shaking hands with those who have the blood of US soldiers on their hands is poison for his re-election campaign back home in the US. Once again, by calling off the talks, Trump has followed his instincts to pander to his US base, while ignoring the potential repercussions elsewhere in the world. So does this mean the yearlong negotiations to finally bring peace to Afghanistan have come to naught? Fortunately, judging by the current status quo, this is a clear no.

Both sides seeking an agreement

Even though the Taliban has threatened to keep up its attacks and possibly kill even more US soldiers, and despite their control over large swathes of the country allowing them to strike wherever they want, including the capital, Kabul — the fundamentalist group knows that it cannot win with Western troops still on the ground. Otherwise, the Taliban would have never considered engaging in talks with their sworn enemy in the first place.

Soon, Trump's emotional Twitter rhetoric will give way to a more level-headed foreign policy position vis-a-vis the Taliban. Indeed, the planned US-Taliban agreement seemed incredibly close to becoming reality — even though reports have surfaced according to which numerous issues remained unresolved. This may be the true reason why Trump canceled the meeting, while officially doing so out of patriotic solidarity with a fallen US soldier. After all, this resonates much more with his supporters back home.

Read more: DW reports from Afghan talks in Doha

DW's Florian Weigand
Florian Weigand leads DW's Dari and Pashtu serviceImage: DW/P. Böll

What about the Afghan government?

Despite the bloodshed, Trump cannot risk consigning the deal to the dustbin of history, as this would jeopardize one of his major election promises: Namely, to swiftly pull out all US troops from Afghanistan. And Trump is keen to see no more US soldiers killed in the country. If he walks away from talks, Trump risks the Taliban using deadly attacks on US personnel to force him back to the negotiating table. In which case, with his re-election campaign gathering pace, Trump would be blamed for every US soldier killed.

But the Taliban should rethink their strategy of deploying force to reach their goals as well. After Trump's latest tweets, they should now realize that bombs will not produce a quick victory for them.

And lastly, there is the Afghan government, which so far has been systematically sidelined by the US and the Taliban. It may gradually regain importance, and plans to hold elections in September despite all obstacles so that voters can lend it further legitimacy. Afghans head to the polls in just three weeks' time — even though it was long unclear if the election would even go ahead. The coming days will therefore be decisive, even without Trump's surprise tweets.

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