Read: What really prompted Trump to call off Afghan peace talks
Khalilzad’s efforts came at the behest of a president who entered office wanting to leave Afghanistan, but was persuaded by advisers to send thousands more troops there in 2017. Khalilzad opted to talk directly to the Taliban, and speak separately with the Afghan government, in hopes of creating the conditions for direct talks between the two parties later. Right before the talks collapsed, he said he had reached an agreement “in principle” with the Taliban—whereby the U.S. would gradually draw down the roughly 14,000 troops it has in the country in exchange for guarantees that the Taliban would not provide a haven for terrorist groups.
“I think from Ambassador Khalilzad’s perspective, he kept us in the loop enough, whereas we thought we weren’t,” Mohib told me. “Of course, our future is tied to it—any deal that would have been signed or agreed to would have altered our future. So we naturally wanted to know all the details.” The State Department has said that Khalilzad kept leaders in Kabul briefed on the discussions; most recently, a State Department spokesperson wrote to me on background in an email, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his team “extensively reviewed the most recent draft agreement [with the Taliban] in three languages,” though it’s unclear whether he was able to suggest changes. “We have consulted regularly with the Afghan government and other key stakeholders on all matters involving peace in Afghanistan,” the spokesperson wrote, “and will continue to do so.”
In fact, Mohib couldn’t even explain why Trump called the whole thing off. The president also revealed at that point that he had invited both Ghani and Taliban leaders to meet with him at the U.S. presidential retreat Camp David, before canceling at the last minute after the Kabul attack. “Why it fell apart is really a mystery to all of us—we don’t know exactly,” Mohib said.
“We accepted to attend the meetings at Camp David because we felt that this was an opportunity for us to talk at the highest level with our major partner, the United States, on the way forward,” he said. But he noted that the Afghan government did not have a say in whether the Taliban would be there.
Afghan civilians and security forces were killed regularly over nearly a year of Taliban negotiations with the U.S.—during which Taliban leaders continued to claim that the government was an illegitimate puppet of the United States. The Taliban’s position was a key reason the U.S., keen to end a nearly two-decade presence in the country that has cost close to $1 trillion by one estimate, pursued a separate deal with the insurgents. But it wasn’t one that would have led to real peace, in Mohib’s view.
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“We shouldn’t be buying the Taliban’s excuse that they do not recognize the Afghan government, and hence they don’t want to talk to us,” he said. “Previously we have negotiated with the Taliban. So this excuse that they don’t recognize is just an excuse, and if they feel that they’re getting away with it, then of course they will never talk to the government.”