WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has announced the resumption of peace talks with the Taliban, but refused to give a timeline for the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan, as he made an unannounced visit to American soldiers stationed in the war-torn country.
After nine rounds of negotiations with the Taliban, Trump said in September that he was calling the peace talks off after a US service member was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.
It was Trump’s first trip to Afghanistan since becoming the president. The visit on Thursday for Thanksgiving came a week after a prisoner swap with the Taliban aimed at resuming peace negotiations to end the 18-year-long war.
As part of the swap deal, the Taliban freed two Western academics who had been held hostage since 2016 – American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks – in exchange for three imprisoned senior militants.
“Yes,” Trump told a small group of reporters at the Bagram Air Field when asked to confirm whether the US had restarted discussions with the Taliban after calling the peace talks “dead”.
Trump said the terms of the deal would have to include a Taliban ceasefire.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and 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. I believe it’ll probably work out that way,” he said.
Afghan officials have long demanded a ceasefire but the Taliban, who now control more territory than at any point since they were ousted in 2001, have refused to hold direct talks with the government until a US deal is agreed.
Trump said the US had made tremendous progress over the past six months and had been drawing down its troops at the same time.
“We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory and they (Taliban) want to make a deal very badly,” he told reporters during a hastily-arranged bilateral meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the air field, the largest US base in Afghanistan.
Trump confirmed that he hoped to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, but did not give any timeline.
The US currently has less than 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, but military officials would not confirm the exact number.
Earlier, in his address to the American troops, Trump said the war in Afghanistan would not be decided on the battlefield and, ultimately, there needs to be a political solution that he said would be decided by the people of the region.
“We will see if the Taliban wants to make a deal,” he said. “If they do, they do. If they don’t they don’t.”
The president referred to his September announcement to abruptly withdraw from peace talks after the Taliban killed a US soldier.
“They (Taliban) thought that was good negotiating power,” Trump said. “That’s bad negotiating power and since then we’ve hit them so hard.”
Addressing a few hundred cheering troops from inside a massive hangar on the air field, he said: “We will continue to work tirelessly until the day when we can bring each and every one of you home and safe to your family and that day is coming.”
In his brief remarks, Ghani thanked the American troops who have made the “ultimate sacrifice” in Afghanistan and noted that the US casualties in Afghanistan were way down under Trump’s presidency.
“Afghan security forces are taking the lead now,” Ghani said. “In the next three months, it’s going to be all Afghanistan!”