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International relations

China edges closer to Afghanistan as US cancels peace talks

Taliban attacks irk Trump, opening the door for Beijing's overtures to Islamabad

ISLAMABAD -- U.S. President Donald Trump has abruptly canceled talks with Afghanistan's Taliban militants following weeks of uncertainty surrounding peace negotiations that would end America's longest and most expensive war.

The cancellation came just after the Chinese foreign minister met with his Afghan counterpart in Islamabad earlier the same day.

Ahead of Wednesday's anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Trump called off a planned meeting for Sunday with Taliban leaders and Afghanistan's U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani.

"What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?" Trump tweeted following the latest Taliban attack in Afghanistan that killed 12 people, including a U.S. soldier. U.S. and other western officials have claimed that numerous attacks by the Taliban over the past year have been done to strengthen the group's negotiating position with the U.S.

The planned meeting would have brought together Trump, top Taliban leaders and President Ghani at the Camp David presidential retreat in the U.S., marking a symbolic high point in the negotiations.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after it was revealed that the New York attacks were planned and directed by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was based in Afghanistan at the time under protection of the Taliban. Bin Laden was killed in a 2011 U.S. commando attack on a hideout in neighboring Pakistan.

The U.S.-Taliban talks had continued for more than a year as the Taliban made increasing military gains. Senior government officials in Pakistan who routinely track events in Afghanistan told the Nikkei Asian Review that the Taliban now control almost two-thirds of the country.

"It appears the Taliban had not conceded ground at all [during peace negotiations]," said Aziz Khan, former Pakistani ambassador to the Taliban when they were in power, in an interview with Nikkei. "They were still looking to join an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [a theocratic Islamic State] rather than join a broad-based government."

Khan, who is an authority on the Taliban, said that while the U.S. had canceled the Camp David meeting, further peace talks would likely continue. "Going forward, the Taliban will have to reduce their expectations [of power in a future Afghan government] if the peace process is to succeed," added Khan.

Meanwhile, news of the cancellation coincided with a weekend visit to Pakistan by China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi to attend a meeting with foreign ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said late on Sunday that China wants to help Afghanistan rebuild its war-torn economy after almost four decades of conflict. "China is keen to enroll a peaceful Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor," said a senior Pakistani government official, who spoke to Nikkei on condition of anonymity. "Afghanistan badly needs to build its infrastructure and China wants to help."

Other senior Pakistani officials have told Nikkei that China has hosted a number of visits by Taliban representatives since 2017. "We know that China has been talking to all sides in Afghanistan. Ahead of the meeting [in Pakistan] between the foreign ministers, China has also been talking to the Taliban," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani commentator on defense and security affairs, in an interview with Nikkei.

"Unlike the U.S., which wants to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan, China's is looking for long-term opportunities," added Rizvi.

In the past, Pakistani and western officials have told Nikkei that peace in Afghanistan is seen by China as an essential prerequisite for building new trade routes with former Soviet republics in Central Asia that are rich in oil, gas and other natural resources.

A western diplomat in Islamabad who tracks events in Afghanistan separately told Nikkei that as the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign heats up, Trump will have to negotiate an end to America's conflict with the Taliban. "For more than a year, we have heard of the U.S. and the Taliban trying to work for a peace settlement in Afghanistan," he said, speaking to Nikkei on condition of anonymity. "For the American president, peace in Afghanistan that allows the withdrawal of some American troops is essential to be showcased as a [foreign policy] success," he said.

Rizvi concluded that Trump's decision appears to have "put the peace negotiations on hold for now. I don't think the U.S. wants to completely end this process."

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