Trump returns from Afghan visit, saying he reopened talks with Taliban

NEW YORK: (Ch Mudassar Iqbal) United States (US) President Donald Trump Friday returned to Florida following his surprise trip to Afghanistan during which he announced that he had reopened peace negotiations with the Taliban less than three months after scuttling talks with the militant group aimed at ending 18 years of war.

Trump was spending Thanksgiving holidays in his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida when he flew in secrecy to Kabul on Wednesday night to see US troops. It was his second visit to a combat zone as president and the first to Afghanistan — he visited Iraq last year.

Details about US leaders’ visits to combat areas are tightly held until they leave.

News of Trump’s visit to Afghanistan came on Thursday evening, when reporters traveling with the president were given authorization to report on the trip. Reporters were given the go-ahead minutes before the presidential plane lifted off from Bagram air base where he spent about three hours.

The White House said an identical presidential aircraft remained in Florida at the airport in Palm Beach while Trump traveled to Afghanistan. That plane then flew to Germany on Thursday to pick up the president for the second leg of his trip back.

Trump arrived in Kabul shortly after 8:30 p.m. local time Thursday. Within two hours, he met and took photos with troops at a dining hall, held a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and delivered a speech to service members that wrapped up shortly after 11 p.m. local time. Air Force One left Bagram at midnight.

During the visit, Trump announced that he has resumed peace talks with the Taliban, after he declared talks “dead” in September following a scrapped secret meeting with members of the Taliban and officials from the Afghan government at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

Trump at the time blamed the canceled visit on an attack in Kabul days earlier that left 12 people dead, including a US service member, saying, “When I heard very simply that they killed one of our soldiers and 12 other innocent people, I said there’s no way I’m meeting.”

The president said Thursday that he believes the Taliban is ready for a cease-fire, and announced that he would like to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan from less than 14,000 to 8,600.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal — we’ll see if they make a deal. If they do they do, and if they don’t they don’t. That’s fine,” Trump said during his meeting with Ghani.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire and they didn’t want to do a cease-fire and now they do want to do a cease-fire,” he added. “I believe it’ll probably work out that way.

“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,” Trump said even as he reaffirmed his desire to reduce the American military presence to 8,600 troops, down from about 12,000 to 13,000.

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 September 11 attacks.

The scope and prospects of any renewed negotiations remained unclear, and White House officials gave few details beyond 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.

Trump’s visit came a week after a prisoner swap between Washington and Kabul that raised hopes for a long elusive peace deal.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Reuters on Friday they were “ready to restart the talks”.

“Our stance is still the same. If peace talks start, it will be resumed from the stage where it had stopped,” Mujahid added.

Taliban leaders have told Reuters that the group has been holding meetings with senior US officials in Doha since last weekend, adding they could soon resume formal peace talks.

Meanwhile, about his talks with Trump, President Ghani said, “Both sides underscored that if the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reaching a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire.

We also emphasized that for any peace to last, terrorist safe havens outside Afghanistan must be dismantled.”