US prepares to step up strikes on Taliban after Trump halts talks

Ben Farmer
Mike Pompeo said after talks were cancelled 'If you’re the Taliban, conditions have been worsening, and they’re about to get worse.' - REUTERS

American forces are preparing to redouble a campaign to kill Taliban commanders in Afghanistan, in an attempt to put more pressure on the insurgents following Donald Trump's decision to call off negotiations with the militants.

US commanders are expected to step up the tempo of their campaign of air strikes and raids targeting militant leaders, military sources said.

The Taliban are expected to respond to the halt in talks with their own increase in operations, leaving Afghanistan braced for intensified violence in the coming weeks.

“[The Americans] have said they are really going to go after their commanders now, ” said one source.

Both sides have refused to halt fighting while holding talks in Doha over the past year, attempting to convert military pressure into negotiating strength.

Mr Trump tweeted on Monday: "We have been serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and that was not meant to be the job of our Great Soldiers, the finest on earth. Over the last four days, we have been hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years!"

Mr Trump added that US talks with the Taliban were "dead."

Mr Trump, speaking at the White House, said: "They're dead. They're dead. As far as I'm concerned, they're dead."

Afghan army soldiers pray during a ceremony to introduce the new chief of the intelligence service, in Kabul  Credit: AP

The US president said it had been his idea to hold a meeting at Camp David, and his idea to "terminate" it.

He said: "When I heard, very simply, they killed one of our soldiers, and 12 other people, there's no way I'm meeting on that basis. They made a big mistake. And they're telling people they made a big mistake."

“You should know, in the last 10 days we’ve killed over a thousand Taliban,” said Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, after Mr Trump cancelled talks.

He went on: “If you’re the Taliban, conditions have been worsening, and they’re about to get worse.”

Asked if that meant military activity would increase, he said “I’ll leave it to the Department of Defence to talk about specifics, but no one should underestimate President Trump’s commitment to achieving those goals.”

The Taliban continued their own campaign of indiscriminate bombing through talks and warned that Mr Trump's cancellation of negotiations would lead to more bloodshed. The move "will harm America more than anyone else," the group said in a statement. "It will damage its reputation, unmask its anti-peace policy to the world even more, increase its loss of life and treasure and present its political interactions as erratic."

Scattered violence continued across the country on Monday as Afghans digested Mr Trump's reverse on talks. A roadside bomb blast in the capital, Kabul, wounded three civilians. The intended target was unknown and there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. The Taliban claimed attacks on at least two districts of north eastern Takhar province overnight, and a heavy gun battle continued in the district of Khwaja Ghar.

The insurgents launched a series of assaults on provincial capitals last week. The main highway between the capital and the capital of the northern province of Baghlan remained blocked, a week after the Taliban attacked Pul-e Khumri, and sporadic gun battles continued.

Mr Trump's lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, had last week announced a deal had been finalised “in principle”, that would see US troops begin to withdraw from America's longest war.

Mr Trump invited both the insurgents and the Afghan government to a meeting at his presidential retreat, Camp David, where he hoped to seal the deal and make a grand announcement. Mr Trump said he cancelled the gathering after a Taliban bomb blast killed a US soldier. The Taliban said they themselves had rejected the invitation, refusing to appear alongside the Afghan government, who they denounce as a US puppet regime.

Both the US and Taliban appeared to leave the door open to a resumption of talks later. "I'm not pessimistic," Mr Pompeo said. "I've watched the Taliban do things and say things they've not been permitted to do before."

The Taliban said they stood by talks. “The Islamic Emirate has a solid and unwavering policy. We called for dialogue twenty years earlier and maintain the same stance today and believe America shall return to this position also.”