U.S. envoy to Afghanistan announces 'pause' in Taliban peace talks after attack on air base

Negotiations had recently resumed with the militant group in a bid aimed at ending America's longest war.
Image: Zalmay Khalilzad
The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, attends the intra-Afghan talks in the Qatari capital of Doha in July.Karim Jaafar / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Phil Helsel

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan said Thursday he was outraged by a Taliban attack near Bagram Airfield this week, and "we’re taking a brief pause," apparently in reference to peace talks that had recently resumed with the militant group.

"When I met the Talibs today, I expressed outrage about yesterday’s attack on Bagram, which recklessly killed two and wounded dozens of civilians," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, tweeted.

He said the Taliban "must show they are willing & able to respond to Afghan desire for peace," and that "we’re taking a brief pause for them to consult their leadership on this essential topic."

No coalition service members were killed in Wednesday's attack, in which Taliban fighters attempted to breach Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, but some were evaluated for minor injuries, a spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission said.

Two Afghan civilians were killed, and more than 70 civilians were reported injured, the spokesman said.

The Taliban fighters barricaded themselves inside a medical building outside the base and were killed in a series of airstrikes, the spokesman said.

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The tweets by Khalilzad appear to throw another wrench in peace talks between the United States and the Taliban.

The State Department late Thursday referred questions about the pause to Khalilzad's tweet. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday condemned the "coordinated terrorist attack in the strongest possible terms."

Voice of America, citing Suhail Shaheen, who speaks for the Taliban negotiating team, reported earlier Thursday that Taliban and U.S. negotiators agreed to resume talks after “a few days.”

Shaheen reportedly dismissed suggestions the attack hampered negotiations and said the atmosphere in Thursday’s meetings was "good and positive."

Over the weekend, talks between the U.S. and the Taliban resumed, three months after President Donald Trump abruptly canceled the negotiations aimed at ending America’s longest war.

The U.S.-Taliban negotiations that restarted Saturday in the Qatari capital of Doha aim to reduce violence and lay the groundwork for peace talksbetween the Taliban and the Afghan government, a State Department spokesperson has said.

A separate Western official with knowledge of the discussions said the goal was to "pick up where they left off."

When Trump made the announcement Sept. 7 that he was calling off "peace negotiations," he said he had scheduled a secret meeting the next day at Camp David with Taliban leadership and, separately, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Trump cited a suicide attack in Kabul that killed a U.S. service member.

Eleven other people were also killed in the attack, Trump tweeted at that time, adding: “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse!" Trump in late November announced that talks with the Taliban were back on.

Some 12,000 to 13,000 troops are in Afghanistan, according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The U.S. has had boots on the ground since 2001, when American forces toppled the Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden, the architect behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Since 2001, around 2,300 American service members have died there, according to the Department of Defense. Between January 2009, when the United Nations began a systematic documentation of civilian casualties, and September of this year some 34,000 Afghan civilians died as a result of the armed conflict.

Last month, the Taliban freed two Western hostages, including an American, after holding them in captivity for more than three years.

The hostages were released as part of a deal announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in which the American University of Kabul professors, who were kidnapped at gunpoint in August of 2016, would be freed in exchange for three Taliban members.

Abigail Williams contributed.