Secret Taliban peace talks at Camp David floated, scrapped within a week

President Donald Trump’s decision to hold a meeting in Washington with Taliban leaders and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to try to solidify a peace deal to end the 18-year-long war was first discussed about a week ago, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the discussion.

The idea raised Sept. 1 during a Situation Room meeting with the president was vehemently opposed by national security adviser John Bolton, even as officials at the State Department argued it could move the parties closer to an agreement, officials said.

Bolton had an ally in Vice President Mike Pence, who also made the case against a meeting at Camp David, a location Trump suggested, officials said. Bolton and Pence were in Warsaw together around the time of the internal discussions.

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Using the presidential retreat in Maryland to host the meeting was floated by Trump after he warmed to the idea of a sit-down in Washington, the officials and people familiar with the matter said.

Bolton’s office declined to comment. Pence’s office and a spokesperson for the president did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Among the concerns of administration officials who opposed the meeting was that it might take place around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the officials and people familiar with the matter said. Pence argued at one point that such a meeting could send the wrong message to members of the U.S. military who have fought — and been killed by — the Taliban for years, one senior administration official said.

There also was concern among some U.S. officials that Ghani would not show up for such a meeting, and they argued it was better for the president to cancel first than be stood up, the officials and people familiar with the matter said.

There has been broad skepticism within the national security team, even among those supporting the deal, that it would hold even if finalized, they said. The view was that the Taliban couldn’t be trusted to live up to its commitments and that a deal would very quickly collapse once the Afghan government was brought into the talks.

National Security Adviser John Bolton, left, argued against holding a meeting with the Taliban on U.S. soil ahead of the Sept. 11 anniversary.Andrew Harnik / AP

One concern among some administration officials was that elevating the negotiations to a meeting with the president at Camp David might later embarrass Trump if a deal fell apart, officials said.

Bolton has been deeply skeptical of negotiations with the Taliban, which are being led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s envoy on the issue, former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. U.S. negotiators have been working under the president’s demand that a drawdown occur before November 2020 when he’s up for re-election.

The Taliban has offered a different version of events. A senior Taliban leader told NBC News Monday that Trump appears to have cancelled the negotiations after the group refused to travel to Camp David to hold direct talks with the Afghan leadership.

“We have informed Zalmay Khalilzad a number of times that we don’t consider Ashraf Ghani and his administration as a legitimate government and therefore we refused to hold direct talks with them,” the Taliban leader based in Qatar said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Declining the invitation “apparently provoked the president and he suspended peace talks in reaction,” he added.

NBC News could not confirm the claims and the Taliban offered no evidence to back them up and is known for being untruthful and for exaggerating claims.

Pompeo said Sunday that the Afghanistan peace talks were dead for now, but he left the door open for negotiations to resume. His comments came after Trump both first disclosed plans for the Camp David meeting and called it off, tweeting that it was because of the Taliban’s claim of responsibility for a car bombing in Kabul that killed a member of the U.S. military, marking the 16th American combat death in Afghanistan this year.

“How many more decades are they willing to fight?” Trump tweeted, referring to the Taliban.

Saphora Smith contributed.

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