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U.S. responsible for collapse of Taliban peace talks, says Obama official

U.S. and Taliban representatives spent months negotiating peace and American withdrawal from Afghanistan. But after canceling meetings in the U.S., President Trump says the talks are dead. Why did they collapse, and what are the prospects for ending the country’s decades of violence and chaos? Judy Woodruff talks to Laurel Miller, former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We look further now into why the talks collapsed and where this goes from here with Laurel Miller. She was President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She's now at the International Crisis Group. It is a global nonprofit.

    Laurel Miller, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, we heard President Trump say today that the peace talks are dead. Do we believe, do you believe that's the case?

  • Laurel Miller:

    They don't have to be dead. It's a question of whether the U.S. has the will to restart the talks.

    Some of the statements that have been made by Secretary Pompeo, in particular, have indicated some openness to restarting the talks, and the Taliban has likewise. It's hard to know how to interpret President Trump's latest statements that sound more definitive, given that he has changed his mind on similar issues in the past.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And given that it's just a couple of days after we thought these — the meetings were on.

  • Laurel Miller:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What's your understanding of exactly what caused this thing to go off the rails? The president is blaming, as you know, Taliban attacks that include killing an American service member in Afghanistan.

    But Americans have been killed regularly over many months. And many people we have talked to say they think there's there's much more here.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Yes.

    I mean, there's no logic, you can say, to that explanation. The attacks, the ramping up of violence that was described in the earlier piece has been going on throughout these negotiations, almost a year now.

    Last year, Afghanistan was the deadliest conflict in the world. This has been a trajectory over a long period of time. And many Americans have been killed before now.

    So the idea that one particular attack, tragic as it may be, was the unique reason for canceling these last-minute, thrown-together events in Camp David doesn't sound very credible.

    What's more likely is that the Taliban didn't want to show up, because it was their understanding that the deal had been concluded, that it had been negotiated with Ambassador Khalilzad. Why would they want to come to Camp David to reopen the deal?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In other words, they had been in these discussions with Ambassador Khalilzad, and they thought that that was what was going to — they were going to be discussing, whereas the word they got from the White House was that this was going to be something that was open.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Right.

    At a minimum, there was a lot of ambiguity about what this meeting would be. Also, the invitation to President Ghani raised questions as to what was the intention of this meeting, given that the negotiations that have taken place so far have only been on a narrow set of issues just between the U.S. and the Taliban?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about what was in the agreement.

    We just heard Jane Ferguson refer to — and we have heard this before — 5,000 some U.S. troops out of the total 14,000 in the coalition, a follow-up of Taliban talks with the Afghan government.

    What more do we know about what was in this deal?

  • Laurel Miller:

    Not a lot more.

    I mean, the administration and others, the very, very few people who've actually seen the text of the agreement, have been extraordinarily tight-lipped about it. So we know about the first phase of drawdown, the 5,000, over 135 days that you referred to, very little detail about what the rest of a drawdown of American forces would look like.

    We know there would be a commitment to starting Afghan talks, and that there would be some kind of assurances from the Taliban that they would break with al-Qaida and prevent Afghanistan from ever again being used as a launching pad for terrorism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, at this point, how much trust is there among these parties involved?

  • Laurel Miller:

    Very little, but you never negotiate peace on the basis of trust. You negotiate on the basis of interests and of trying to identify common interests.

    And the reasons that gave birth to these negotiations nearly a year ago still exist. The Afghan war is a bloody stalemate. The U.S. is not going to defeat the Taliban. The Afghan government is not showing signs of being able to defeat the Taliban.

    And the U.S. was looking for a way out, with as much grace and potential stability left behind as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it your understanding that the key figures in the Trump administration believed that if the Taliban signed on to any agreement, that they were going to abide by it?

    My question is, were they — did they truly believe that the Taliban was ready to split from al-Qaida, to stop attacking the Afghan government and so on?

  • Laurel Miller:

    You don't have to believe that they're ready in order to enter into an agreement like this. You have to have mechanisms for verifying, for implementing the agreement, and then provisions that enable you to pull out of the agreement if they don't abide by it.

    But you can never know whether that intention is real in advance of actually testing it through a negotiation and implementation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there one party on whom we can say the responsibility for this thing falling apart lies?

  • Laurel Miller:

    I think the United States.

    I mean, I — that's not to say that there haven't been difficulties in the negotiations or that the Taliban hasn't been stubbornly insistent on its positions. But there's no evidence so far there was any last-minute change of position their part.

    There's only evidence that there was this last-minute initiative to hold the Camp David meeting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right, because they had — as you said earlier, they had agreed or thought they had an agreement, a tentative agreement, with Ambassador Khalilzad.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where do we go from here, Laurel Miller?

  • Laurel Miller:

    Yes.

    I mean, it's — there's no good alternative to trying to negotiate a peace agreement in Afghanistan. That remains true today as it was a few days before this.

    It's obviously going to be hard to restart the talks, if the parties want to, because credibility has been damaged. And, already, minimal trust has been further lost.

    (COUGHING)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And at this point — excuse me. Go ahead. Have a sip of water.

    (COUGHING)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At this point, President Ghani, who — sorry — go ahead and — sorry about your cough.

    But President Ghani of Afghanistan was reluctant to accept these talks, but then he agreed to come. And then, I guess on Friday, he changed his mind about coming.

    So, there is a factor there.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Yes, it's not clear whether…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm sorry about that.

    (COUGHING)

  • Laurel Miller:

    It's not clear whether his not coming was a refusal to enter into talks, as much as just the cancellation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sorry about that, Laurel Miller. It happens to all of us. It's happened to me.

    Thank you very much, and we will have you on again to talk about this.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Thank you very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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