Donald Trump says Taliban talks back on in surprise Afghanistan visit

Martin Pengelly in Washington
Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

Donald Trump made an unannounced visit to US troops in Afghanistan on Thursday, his first visit to the country where the US has been at war since late 2001.

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Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Trump said he had restarted peace talks with the Taliban.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them,” he said. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory, and they want to make a deal very badly.”

Talks with the Taliban, reported to be close to a deal, ended in September after plans to host the militants at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, fell apart after the death of a US soldier and under press criticism once it was realised meetings would coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Trump said then the talks were “dead”.

Taliban sponsorship of the al-Qaida attacks, in which 2,977 people were killed in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania, led to the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

“As you know,” Trump said on Thursday, “for a period of time we’ve been working to make a deal. We’ve made tremendous progress over the last six months. We’ve made tremendous progress and at the same time we’ve been drawing down our troops.”

Ghani thanked the Americans who he said had made the “ultimate sacrifice” and said US casualties in Afghanistan were way down under Trump’s presidency.

“Afghan security forces are taking the lead now,” he said.

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Trump said talks had been “close” to a deal but “we pulled back because of what they did. It was not a good thing they did with killing the soldier. An American soldier, from Puerto Rico.”

That was a reference to Sgt Elis A Barreto Ortiz, 34, who was killed in a suicide bomb attack in September, shortly before Trump ended talks. Nineteen US service members have died in Afghanistan in 2019, after a helicopter crash last week. More than 2,400 have been killed there since 2001.

“We’re saying it has to be a ceasefire and they didn’t want to do a ceasefire and now they do want to do a ceasefire,” Trump said. “I believe it’ll probably work out that way.”

Earlier this month, the Taliban released an American and an Australian held for three years, in a prisoner swap. Violence continues, however. On Wednesday, the interior ministry said, 15 people were killed by a car bomb in the north of the country. The victims, mostly women and girls, had been going to a wedding.

Trump left Florida, where he was officially due to spend the Thanksgiving holiday, at night and flew to Bagram airbase, near Kabul. According to the White House pool, the presidential plane “took off and landed in the dark with interior lights off and shades drawn”.

Trump has repeatedly voiced a determination to reduce US troop numbers in Afghanistan. His recent move to withdraw troops from Syria provoked huge controversy over the perceived abandonment of Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State and preceded a Turkish incursion into the north of the country.

On Thursday the president reaffirmed his desire to reduce US troop numbers in Afghanistan by around 5,000, to 8,600.

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According to the pool report, Trump was “expected to be on the ground for about two-and-half hours” and “served turkey to troops in a cafeteria, posed for photos with them and delivered brief remarks to them in a hangar”.

On the way to Afghanistan, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told reporters observing a news embargo: “It’s a dangerous area and he wants to support the troops.

“He and Mrs Trump recognize that there’s a lot of people far away from their families during the holidays and we thought it’d be a nice surprise.”

Asked if there was a political message to the trip, given Trump’s wish to draw down troop numbers in Afghanistan and political challenges at home including the impeachment inquiry, Grisham said: “It’s truly about Thanksgiving and supporting the troops.”

She added: “He’s good. He’s excited.”

Trump visited Iraq at Christmas last year in a trip that was meant to be secret only for details to leak. Last week, Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to troops in the same country.

For Trump’s trip to Afghanistan, according to the pool report, “cellphones, hotspots and other devices emitting a signal were confiscated from everyone traveling on Air Force One.”