Before Trump’s comments, made to reporters as he left for a campaign rally in North Carolina, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was said to be hopeful that there was still a flicker of life in the Taliban talks and that a way to restart them would emerge. In Sunday talk show interviews, Pompeo said the negotiations were off “for the time being” but emphasized the progress that had been made.
State Department negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad returned to Washington on Monday for meetings with senior officials to discuss what had happened and where to go from here.
Dissension within the administration over the issue — centered on Pompeo’s support for the negotiations, national security adviser John Bolton’s opposition, and their competition for policy dominance and presidential favor — is “really heating up,” according to a senior administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
A second senior official described similar Bolton-Pompeo tensions and predicted that, whatever Trump may say now, the issue of negotiations was far from dead. Just as Trump first threatened and then was eager to talk to the leaders of North Korea and Iran, this official said, the president will eventually be willing to make a deal with the Taliban.
Among those trying to stay out of the firing line, Vice President Pence joined Trump in disputing reports that he had opposed the Camp David meeting but was overruled by the president. “This Story is False!” Trump tweeted Monday afternoon, saying that “the Dishonest Media likes to create the look of turmoil in the White House, of which there is none.”
“That’s Absolutely Right Mr. President,” Pence tweeted in response. “More Fake News!”
The second senior official said Pence had helped talk Trump out of his initial idea to hold the meeting with the Taliban at the White House and was opposed to any meeting at all.
Just as the future of U.S.-Taliban negotiations remained in doubt, military officials were noncommittal about whether the U.S. troop cuts the deal envisioned would go ahead.
“The number of troops that we will have will always be the appropriate level that we need to provide security there,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. “We’re going to focus on the counterterrorism mission, and we’re going to focus on the reason we got into Afghanistan in the first place, and that is to prevent terrorist operations or individuals from using Afghanistan as a base from which to operate against the homeland.”
In Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani called on the Taliban to negotiate with him but warned that attempts to increase its attacks on the ground would be met with a ferocious military response. For its part, the Taliban refrained from public statements, and its negotiators were believed to be consulting militant leaders based in Quetta, Pakistan.
No further U.S.-Taliban talks are scheduled, and the nearly completed agreement, negotiated by Khalilzad over the past 10 months, appears dead for now. A meeting between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders — agreed to as part of the U.S.-Taliban deal and scheduled to be held in Oslo on Sept. 23 — has been canceled, according to European officials who were in charge of organizing it. A donors conference to fund post-deal political talks among the Afghans, scheduled for next week in London, is up in the air.
Talk of a cease-fire in the almost 18-year-old war, on the agenda for the Oslo meeting, has now disappeared, as both the United States and the Taliban have pledged to step up their battlefield attacks.
In his remarks to reporters, Trump claimed full credit for both setting up the Camp David meeting and canceling it.
The subject was first broached, according to an official familiar with White House deliberations, in a “principals only” meeting at the end of August. Held in the Situation Room, it included Pompeo and Khalilzad, with Bolton joining via videoconference from overseas.
“It was my idea,” Trump said Monday of inviting the Taliban and Ghani to Washington. “I took my own advice. I like the idea of meeting. . . . I think meeting is a great thing,” he said. “Otherwise, wars would never end.”
Others familiar with the meeting said they could not confirm who first brought it up. Trump said he had nixed a suggestion that it be held at the White House — which others recalled he had proposed himself — because “that would be a step too far.” But, he said, there was precedent for hosting negotiations among warring foreigners at Camp David.
As Khalilzad explained the pact, it would allow the initial withdrawal of about 5,000 U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban commitment to break relations with al-Qaeda and a pledge that it would allow no terrorist organizations with designs on the United States to exist in territory under Taliban control.
Bolton, who had opposed the negotiations since they started last October, argued that Trump could withdraw the same number of troops without any deal with the Taliban.
While State Department officials came away from that August meeting believing that Trump — eager for a campaign-promised withdrawal — was on board with the terms of the deal, some inside the White House insisted that the president had never considered it a done deal and wanted to put his own stamp on the negotiations.
Bolton and others who opposed negotiating with the Taliban — let alone inviting its leaders to Washington — continued to raise questions about the agreement, noting that Taliban attacks had increased in recent months.
Meanwhile, the State Department drew attention to a rise in U.S.-backed Afghan government attacks against the Taliban and stepped-up U.S. airstrikes. Additional violence was to be expected in the lead-up to an agreement as both sides sought leverage.
Although the Camp David aspect of the negotiations was a closely held secret, those who knew about it — supporters and opponents alike — worried that it was a bad idea. Trump’s concept was that he would meet separately with Ghani and the Taliban leaders, satisfy them and himself that the deal was adequate, and then announce it.
The Taliban, queried by Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar, expressed trepidation but did not refuse. Ghani reluctantly agreed, if only to avoid being seen as a peace spoiler.
Trump revealed the plan in the same Saturday night tweet that canceled it. Far from listening to his advisers, he said Monday, “it was my idea to terminate it. I didn’t even discuss it with anybody else.”
The reason, he said, both in the Saturday tweet and Monday’s comments, was the death Thursday morning of a U.S. service member killed in a Taliban attack. “You can’t do that. You can’t do that with me,” Trump said. “So, they’re dead as far as I’m concerned,” he said of the negotiations.
But others noted that 16 Americans have been killed by hostile fire this year in Afghanistan, including one just a week before the most recent death — after Trump was briefed on the peace agreement and sent Khalilzad back to the region to finalize it.
Even as those differing on the wisdom of negotiations plotted different futures, few within the administration mourned the cancellation of the Camp David meeting. “This is a dodged bullet,” said one senior official.