US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center left) walks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's chief of staff Abdul Salam Rahimi, as Pompeo arrives at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on June 25, 2019. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / AFP

The United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban on Sunday both left the door open to fresh talks after President Donald Trump abruptly canceled a secret summit, but the insurgents threatened to inflict greater costs.

The United States also said it would not relent in fighting the militants after Trump cited a Taliban attack that killed a US soldier for scuttling the unprecedented meeting.

Trump said he had invited Taliban leaders, as well as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, for talks Sunday at the presidential retreat of Camp David on a draft deal that would see the United States withdraw thousands of troops and wind down its longest-ever war.

The Afghan government praised Trump’s decision on Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported. But a Taliban official, speaking on behalf of the group in Doha, said Taliban leaders had not, in fact, agreed to a meeting until the deal was completed, accusing the president of lying about the purported Camp David plans. Any deal would have been announced in Doha first, the official said.

“We accepted the invitation but said we would come soon after the signing ceremony of the agreement,” the Taliban official said on Sunday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined on Sunday to say whether the planned meeting had actually been confirmed.

“There’s been some confusion,” Pompeo said on CBS. “Suffice it to say, we were confident that we were going to be able to have these meetings, what would be this afternoon, at Camp David.”

In a series of television interviews, Pompeo did not rule out a return to talks but said the United States needed a “significant commitment” from the Taliban.

“I’m not pessimistic,” Pompeo told NBC. “I’ve watched the Taliban do things and say things they’ve not been permitted to do before.”

“I hope it’s the case the Taliban will change their behavior, will recommit to the things that we’ve been talking to them about for months,” he said on ABC.

“In the end, this will be resolved through a series of conversations,” he added, urging the Taliban to drop its long-running refusal to negotiate with Ghani’s internationally recognized government.

He said that Trump had not decided whether to go ahead with a withdrawal, which under the draft deal would pull 5,000 of the roughly 13,000 US troops from Afghanistan next year.

But Pompeo – who late Saturday oversaw the repatriation of the remains of the US soldier, Sergeant First Class Elis Barreto Ortiz – warned that the United States was “not going to reduce the pressure” on the Taliban.

He said US forces had killed more than 1,000 insurgents in the past 10 days alone.

‘Americans will be harmed’

Veteran US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad had spent a year meeting with the Taliban, which said that Trump showed “neither experience nor patience.”

“Americans will be harmed more than any other” by Trump’s decision, warned a statement by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

US “credibility will be harmed, their anti-peace stance will become more visible to the world, their casualties and financial losses will increase, and the US role in international political interaction will be discredited even further,” he said.

But the spokesman said that the Taliban still believed “that the American side will come back to this position” of talks that seek “the complete end of the occupation.”

The office of Ghani, whose government is rejected by the Taliban as illegitimate, cautiously saluted the “sincere efforts of its allies” after Trump called off the summit.

The Afghan presidency in a statement also “insisted that a real peace can only be achieved if the Taliban stop killing Afghans and accept a ceasefire and face-to-face talks with the Afghan government.”

Trump’s dramatic about-face came weeks before Afghanistan holds presidential elections, raising fears that the Taliban will step up their campaign of violence to disrupt voting.

Criticism ahead of 9/11

Trump relishes dramatic gestures, such as meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but the idea of inviting Taliban leaders to US soil still stunned Washington.

The would-be talks angered even some allies of Trump, who noted that the Taliban would be visiting three days before the 18th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which triggered the US invasion of Afghanistan.

“Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after Al-Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever,” tweeted Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman and daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney.

Considering Trump’s penchant for bombast, some questioned if the summit was even set to take place.

“I’m still looking for confirmation an actual, physical trip to Camp David was planned,” Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro told CNN, while adding: “It’s very odd to invite a terrorist organization like that to Camp David.”

“This is the worst president when it comes to negotiating I think we’ve had in a very long time,” he said.

Afghanistan’s neighbor Iran – which historically has opposed the Taliban and has tense relations with the United States – said it was “gravely concerned.”

“Defeated foreigners must leave and fratricide must end, especially as foreigners can exploit the situation, bringing renewed bloodshed,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.

– Additional reporting AFP

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