Trump tweet ‘gave Taliban upper hand' in negotiations, says Afghan peace official

Insurgents ‘might see it in their advantage’ and ‘come back by force’ if Washington withdraws, Abdullah Abdullah warns

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Donald Trump’s tweet calling for US troops to be home by Christmas gives the Taliban the upper hand in ongoing peace talks, Afghanistan’s chief negotiator has alleged.

The possibility of a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan after 19 years of conflict has played a significant role in drawing the Taliban to the negotiating table in Doha, and it is no secret that Mr Trump has painted a total exit as a major foreign policy win.

But under the February accord signed by Washington and the Taliban – which enabled historic peace talks for a power-sharing deal in the Middle East nation – such a move is contingent upon a pledge by the insurgents to fight and deny refuge to terrorist groups, namely al-Qaida, and a calculable reduction in violence on the ground. 

Mr Trump’s tweet saying troops “should” be home by Christmas failed to mention these pre-requisites. It also directly contradicted comments made hours earlier by his national security adviser Robert O’Brien, stating that US forces would reduce their number to 2,500 by early 2021.

“Nobody has given any clarity,” the head of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, told the Financial Times of the US withdrawal. 

Mr Abdullah said the Taliban “might see it in their advantage” and come back by force if the US withdrew.

The US currently has fewer than 5,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, according to Mr O’Brien. These soldiers are there as part of a Nato mission to train, advise and provide resources to Afghan security forces. 

While Mr Trump’s presidential challenger Joe Biden has also said he largely supports the withdrawal of US troops, the former vice president has said he favours keeping up to 2,000 troops in the country in order to defend against terrorist threats, such as a resurgence of Isis. 

The Taliban welcomed Mr Trump’s tweet, which he followed up by telling Fox Business Channel: "They’re coming home, you know, as we speak. Nineteen years is enough. They’re acting as policemen, okay? They’re not acting as troops.”

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed said he considered the comments a positive step for the implementation of the US-Taliban peace agreement, adding that the group remains “committed to the contents of the agreement and hope for good and positive relations with all countries".

But concerns have been raised that a complete withdrawal could embolden the Taliban to abandon the peace process and seek to seize power.

“This would be a big disaster," a Pakistan foreign ministry official told the FT. “The Taliban who welcomed Trump’s remarks will then consider Afghanistan to be free to conquer and install an Islamist government.”

While fighting has recently reignited in Afghanistan – forcing more than 5,600 families to leave their home in the southern Helmand province, according to officials – delegates from both sides returned to the negotiating table this week to discuss disputed issues and “present solutions”.

But as US troops took part in airstrikes against the Taliban, whose forces took major checkpoints and closed in on the provincial capital, diplomats and officials warned the rising violence was sapping the trust required for successful peace talks in Qatar.

Very little has emerged from the talks so far, which were expected to be arduous, lengthy and often esoteric. 

Reports suggest officials have so far largely been bogged down in discussions over Islamic jurisprudence and how it will affect negotiations. 

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