KABUL — After abruptly axing nearly a year of delicate peace talks with the Taliban in September, President Trump put the negotiations back on the front burner this week in a similarly jolting fashion by seeming to demand a cease-fire that his negotiators had long concluded was overly ambitious.
Despite a sense of relief at the prospect of resuming talks to end the 18-year conflict, Western diplomats and Taliban leaders were scrambling to figure out whether Trump had suddenly moved the goal posts for negotiations.
They were particularly confused by his remarks, made during an unannounced Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan, that the United States was once again meeting with the Taliban to discuss a deal but that “we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire.”
Demanding a cease-fire would amount to a big shift in the US position and require a significant new concession from the Taliban — one that Americans have little leverage to extract.
For much of the yearlong talks, the Taliban and the United States were fundamentally on the same page: The Taliban wanted the Americans out of Afghanistan, and Trump has made no secret his desire to end what he has called the United State’s unending wars. But agreeing upon the details of a deal proved complicated.
In the agreement the two sides were on the verge of finalizing before Trump pulled the plug, the best US negotiators could get the Taliban to consent to was some reduction in violence. Discussions on a comprehensive cease-fire were relegated to future talks between the Taliban and Afghan leaders — only after the United States had pledged, and begun, to withdraw its troops.
But Thursday, Trump suggested the Taliban position had shifted.
“They didn’t want to do a cease-fire, but now they do want to do a cease-fire, I believe,” he said. “And it will probably work out that way. And we’ll see what happens.”
The Taliban seemed surprised by Trump’s declaration. While the group’s negotiators have held informal meetings with US diplomats in recent weeks about ways to go back to the table, on Friday their leaders said their original position on a cease-fire had not changed.
“The Americans walked away from the negotiating table, and now the ball is in their side; it is up to them to come back if they want to solve this,” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban’s negotiation team, told The New York Times.
It’s unclear how US negotiators could get the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire now, when they were not able to do so earlier.
For the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, Trump’s statements were welcome. For months, Ghani had unsuccessfully tried to persuade Americans not to give away a US troop withdrawal without a cease-fire because that would leave his government even more vulnerable.
Keeping the peace process alive after Trump canceled talks in September has required quiet, delicate diplomacy, including work that resulted in a prisoner swap and some reduction in violence. Trump’s latest interjection will once again have his negotiators scrambling to try to pull off what many Western officials have described as an unrealistic goal.