By: Lailuma Noori
President Trump paid an unannounced Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Afghanistan on Thursday and declared that he had reopened peace negotiations with the Taliban less than three months after scuttling talks in hopes of ending 18 years of war.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal, and we’re meeting with them,” Mr. Trump said during a meeting with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, at the main base for American forces north of Kabul.
“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,” Mr. Trump added even as he reaffirmed his desire to reduce the American military presence to 8,600 troops, down from about 12,000 to 13,000.
Mr. Trump’s sudden announcement on peace talks came at a critical moment in the United States’ long, drawn-out military venture in Afghanistan, a time when the country is mired in turmoil over disputed election results and Americans at home are increasingly tired of an operation that began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
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The scope and prospects of any renewed negotiations remained unclear, and White House officials gave few details beyond Mr. Trump’s sudden revelation. On the flight to Afghanistan, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, had insisted that the secret trip was “truly about Thanksgiving and supporting the troops” and “nothing about the peace process” with the Taliban.
The Taliban made no official comment immediately after the late-night visit and Mr. Ghani said little afterward about any peace talks. “Both sides underscored that if the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reaching a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire,” Mr. Ghani wrote on Twitter. “We also emphasized that for any peace to last, terrorist safe havens outside Afghanistan must be dismantled.”
But while the Afghan government has long demanded that the Taliban agree to a cease-fire, no evidence has emerged that the group was willing to grant one. Instead, it has said it would discuss the possibility in negotiations with Afghanistan’s political leaders over the future of the country once the Americans agree to leave. Mr. Trump made the visit, his first to Afghanistan, under a shroud of secrecy, arriving in a darkened airplane just after 8:30 p.m. local time and departing a few hours later on a trip that the White House had concealed from his public schedule for security reasons.
The president carried out the traditional role of feeding turkey and mashed potatoes to American troops in fatigues, then dined, mingled and posed for photographs before delivering remarks celebrating the American military before about 1,500 troops in an aircraft hangar.
But his visit also had an important political dimension. Mr. Trump, who angrily called off talks with the Taliban in September just as the sides appeared close to an accord, is searching for foreign policy achievements he can celebrate on the campaign trail over the next year. Several of his other marquee initiatives, including nuclear talks with North Korea and an effort to squeeze concessions out of Iran with economic pressure, have yielded few results.
During his short visit on the ground on Thursday, Mr. Trump boasted of American military successes against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and suggested that the Taliban was eager to make a peace deal, but that he personally was indifferent to the outcome.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal — we’ll see if they make a deal,” Mr. Trump said. “If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t. That’s fine.”
He also said that the Taliban was willing to agree to a cease-fire pending the more extensive accord, a matter of contention in the earlier talks but one that Mr. Ghani’s government has insisted on.
Mr. Trump arrived in Afghanistan one day after at least 13 people were killed when their car struck a roadside bomb on the way to a wedding party in Taliban-controlled territory in northern Afghanistan, officials said. Most of the victims were related to one another.
Mr. Trump’s suggestion that the United States would either reach a peace with the Taliban or achieve “total victory” was a sharp departure from his public expressions of frustration with what he has called America’s unending wars. American military leaders and diplomats have long ruled out the possibility of a military victory in Afghanistan. To the contrary, they say, a political settlement is the only path out of the war. “Peace talks are the only responsible way forward, but it will be a hard and lengthy road,” said James Dobbins, who served as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“Some time ago, the choice seemed to be between talking or winning on the battlefield,” Mr. Dobbins added. “More recently, the options under consideration seem to be talking or losing — that is, withdrawing unilaterally.”
The president made a similar point when he stuck to his prepared remarks, declaring that the war “will not be decided on the battlefield” and that “ultimately there will need to be a political solution.” The vow of “total victory” absent a peace negotiation appeared to be spontaneous.
American diplomats have quietly tried to keep the peace process alive since Mr. Trump called off the talks, using small measures like a prisoner swap to build trust. In recent weeks, informal meetings between the two sides have been reported, though neither side had publicly acknowledged that peace negotiations had formally resumed.
Even after Mr. Trump broke off negotiations, the Taliban refrained from criticizing him too harshly, which analysts took as evidence that the group still wanted a deal with the United States. The Thanksgiving trip also allowed the president to stand against a backdrop of visible military support amid his decision to intervene in several high-profile war crimes cases, which has roiled the Pentagon and strained his relations with military leaders.