The U.S.-led military command in Afghanistan is refuting reports that its top commander said the U.S. is ready to engage in direct talks with the Taliban, saying his comments were mischaracterized.
“The United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people or the Afghan government,” said U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, Resolute Support commander, in a statement Monday.
“My reaffirmation of Secretary Pompeo’s statement in which he said peace talks would include a discussion of international forces and that the United States is ready to work with the Taliban, the Afghan government and the Afghan people towards lasting peace was mischaracterized,” he said.
Reuters reported on Monday that Nicholson said the U.S. was ready to join “direct negotiations” with the Taliban.
“Our Secretary of State, Mr. [Mike] Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces,” Nicholson said, according to Reuters.
Resolute Support said Nicholson was referring to Pompeo’s statements on June 16, where he referenced potential peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and said, “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
“The U.S. is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell, Resolute Support spokesman, clarified. “But this remains an Afghan-led process.”
An earlier report on Sunday also said the U.S. was ready to engage in direct talks with the Taliban.
The New York Times reported the Trump administration had ordered its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, to jumpstart larger negotiations that would include the Afghan government. The Times reported:
The Trump administration has told its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, a significant shift in American policy in Afghanistan, done in the hope of jump-starting negotiations to end the 17-year war.
The Taliban have long said they will first discuss peace only with the Americans, who toppled their regime in Afghanistan in 2001. But the United States has mostly insisted that the Afghan government must take part.
The recent strategy shift, which was confirmed by several senior American and Afghan officials, is intended to bring those two positions closer and lead to broader, formal negotiations to end the long war.
The Afghan government opposes being cut out of any talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, but there has not been any progress since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered peace talks with the Taliban earlier this year.
The Taliban has sought direct U.S. involvement in talks, as has Pakistan, since they consider the U.S. the real power in Afghanistan.
“This is what we wanted and were waiting for, to sit with the U.S. directly and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan,” a Taliban spokesman told Reuters.
The reports of direct U.S. involvement also comes amid reports that the Trump administration could ask for an Afghanistan War strategy review, and also after two recent U.S. soldier deaths.
Businessman Erik Prince, who founded the defense contracting firm Blackwater and has advised the Trump White House, has also stepped up efforts to win support for his plan, where special operations forces and contractors would take over the fight from the roughly 15,000 U.S. troops on the ground.