The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As they did on the battlefield, the Taliban outlasted the U.S. at the negotiating table

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, shake hands after signing a peace agreement between Taliban and the Trump administration in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 29, 2020.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, shake hands after signing a peace agreement between Taliban and the Trump administration in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 29, 2020. (Hussein Sayed/AP)

On the day he was to begin peace talks with the Trump administration in the fall of 2018, Taliban co-founder and senior leader Abdul Ghani Baradar found himself in a luxury villa at a Qatari resort. His uncovered windows overlooked the swimming pool, where bikini-clad women lay in the Persian Gulf sun.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. diplomat negotiating for the administration, noted the scene when he showed up to greet Baradar, who had recently been released from years of imprisonment in Pakistan. It was, Khalilzad said lightly in the Pashto language they shared, a vision of heaven.

Baradar quickly walked to the windows and closed the curtains. It was time to begin.

Less than 18 months later, after what President Donald Trump called “very successful negotiations,” Baradar and Khalilzad struck a deal to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan with the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. After another year and a half, under the same agreement but a different U.S. president, the last American forces made a hasty, chaotic exit, leaving the Taliban in full charge of the country.

The Taliban took control of the Kabul airport Aug. 31, as celebratory gunfire and fireworks echoed across the city. (Video: The Washington Post)

It was not the ending the United States wanted. In its wake, political blame has been lobbed across partisan lines. Democrats, and President Biden, accuse Trump of sticking them with a bad deal. Republicans, and Trump, charge Biden with botching the agreement and rushing the withdrawal. International allies are upset, adversaries are preening, and many Afghans feel betrayed.

Many others, even as they anxiously watch events unfold in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, believe the endgame was inevitable. “Whether we stretched the timeline, or we condensed the timeline, I think the only difference was the pace of events. We would have arrived at the same results,” said a person in the region closely familiar with the matter.

Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war

Like a number of current and former U.S. and foreign officials with direct knowledge of events who were interviewed for this article, this person spoke on the condition of anonymity about sensitive U.S. diplomacy with the Taliban that started more than a decade ago.

“For me, the mistakes were made very, very early,” as the Americans tried to find solutions that “took it out of the hands of the Afghans,” said Thomas Ruttig, a German expert on the Taliban and co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent research organization based in Kabul.

The Taliban had long known it was playing a waiting game it was likely to win, Ruttig said. “These are not super-Afghans,” either on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, he said. “But they were much more consistent than everyone else,” and they understood Western politics and the need to “achieve” something.

That, and the fact it did not see the need to “ask their own people if they wanted to be killed or not,” gave the Taliban a huge advantage, Ruttig said.

Interpreted as weakness

It took the United States almost a decade from the 2001 start of the war to conclude that a negotiated end was far more likely than a military victory. But some U.S. allies opened early channels of communication with the Taliban. German intelligence, which began tentative talks in 2005, helped the Americans finally establish contacts five years later, when State Department official Frank Ruggiero and Jeff Hayes, a defense intelligence official at the National Security Council, met with the militants.

Even as it began those baby steps toward negotiations, President Barack Obama’s administration had already moved to expand U.S. involvement in the war itself. By the end of 2009, after lengthy internal reviews, Obama had announced troop surges that would bring the total number of U.S. forces, numbering 36,000 at the start of his administration, to more than 100,000.

He would, Obama promised, “bring this war to a successful conclusion” by building the capacity of Afghanistan’s own military forces to take over the fight, and of its government to effectively run the country. The bloated U.S. presence wouldn’t last forever, he said. U.S. withdrawals would begin in July 2011 and be completed, with an unspecified training and counterterrorism force remaining, in 2014.

The Afghanistan Papers: Hiding the truth about the Afghanistan war’s ‘conclusion’

As with many such U.S. announcements, the Taliban had its own analysis of what the Americans meant. “It’s a surge, but we’re already telling you when we will leave,” Ruttig said. “They interpreted it as weakness.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put more meat on the bones of what she said was a three-pronged, “mutually-reinforcing” Obama strategy in a speech at the Asia Society in February 2011.

The expanded U.S. military presence would crush both the al-Qaeda terrorists who had plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Afghanistan, and the Taliban who had harbored them. An expanded U.S. government civilian presence would “bolster the governments, economies and civil societies of Afghanistan and Pakistan to undercut the pull of the insurgency.” There would also be “an intensified diplomatic push to bring the Afghan conflict to an end.”

The choice for the Taliban, she said, was a clear one — reject al-Qaeda and terrorism, or “face the consequences.”

“They cannot wait us out,” Clinton said. “They cannot defeat us.” But crucially, Clinton said that although breaking ties with al-Qaeda remained the U.S. bottom line, there were no preconditions to begin diplomacy.

Marc Grossman, a veteran U.S. diplomat who had left the Foreign Service, was asked to return to lead the diplomatic effort. Within weeks after Clinton’s speech, he was in Doha, the Qatar capital, shaking hands with and sitting across a table from Tayyab Agha, head of the political wing of the Taliban, and a close aide to its reclusive leader, Mohammad Omar.

Qatar was viewed by both sides as the perfect place for talks. Seeking to punch above its weight as a regional foreign policy player, it also was seen, despite hosting the major U.S. air base in the region, as having no particular stake in the Afghanistan conflict.

“As a small state, Qatar does not pose any threat to any countries,” Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah al Khater said in a recent interview. “This puts us in a very flexible position where we can maneuver through the cracks.”

Grossman began by making clear to Agha that he was not there to make peace with the Taliban, but rather to open the door to direct talks between the militants and the Afghanistan government of then-President Hamid Karzai. Agha, who spoke English he had learned at a refugee school in Pakistan but preferred to speak to the Americans through an interpreter, indicated that the Taliban had no interest in talking to the U.S.-backed “puppets” in Kabul.

In general, the insurgents wanted to open a political office in Doha where they could speak to the international community. More specifically, they wanted the release of five senior Taliban imprisoned by the American military at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Although Grossman outlined a sequence of reciprocal actions, the talks quickly boiled down to what amounted to a prisoner swap. In exchange for the Guantánamo five, the Americans wanted the release of the only U.S. service member held by the Taliban.

An Army soldier deployed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2009, Bowe Bergdahl, for reasons that would be disputed years later at his military court-martial, had wandered away from his battalion based in Paktika province, along the Afghanistan border with Pakistan. Five months after his disappearance, he showed up as a prisoner in a Taliban video.

In the shadow of the towers: Five lives and a world transformed after 9/11

Grossman and Agha and their teams held four or five meetings in Doha, attended by Qatari mediators.

“Most of the discussions were not the mega discussions” about ending the war, recalled a senior Qatari official. “They were more transactional discussions about specific topics . . . it was all about managing the situation rather than resolving the situation.”

While they came close to agreement, the negotiations ended abruptly after Karzai, angered that his government had not been included, demanded in December 2011 that they be shut down.

For the Taliban, notified by Qatar that the Americans were not coming back, the episode did nothing to enhance U.S. credibility.

A gift for the Taliban

Indirect and sporadic U.S.-Taliban contacts followed, and the Americans eventually asked Qatar to allow the Taliban to establish a more permanent office in Doha. Karzai finally agreed, but exploded in rage on the day the mission was set to open in the summer of 2013. Under their black-and-white flag, the militants had hung a banner and affixed a plaque on the wall reading “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” making the office what the Afghan president argued was an alternative embassy.

After then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry scrambled to defuse Karzai’s anger, and the Qataris intervened with the Taliban, the plaque was removed and a statement issued saying the venue would be known officially as the “political bureau of the Taliban Afghan” in the Persian Gulf state.

But it was not until the spring of 2014, under new U.S. negotiators James Dobbins from the State Department and Douglas Lute from the National Security Council, that a deal to exchange the prisoners was finally struck. Under its terms, the five Taliban were transferred from Guantánamo to Qatari custody. Bergdahl, who had been held on the Pakistani side of the border, was handed over to a U.S. Delta Force Special Operations team near Khost, just inside Afghanistan.

While the three-pronged U.S. policy remained in force, there had been little negotiation beyond the prisoner swap as the war raged on between the Taliban and the surged U.S. forces, along with thousands of other troops from NATO and non-NATO coalition forces. With little to show for that effort, some allies began to withdraw and Obama, as promised, began to downsize the U.S. troop presence and turn “combat operations” on the ground over to the Western-trained and equipped Afghan forces.

During a news conference in July 2016, Obama said the U.S. presence would be reduced to 8,400 troops when his presidency was over by the end of that year. But the United States would continue backing the Afghan military, he said. “It’s in our national interest — after all the blood and treasure we have invested — that we give our Afghan partners the support to succeed,” he said.

Six months into his presidency, Trump announced his own vision for the war. There would be no more “nation-building,” the second prong of Clinton’s strategy, and there was no talk of negotiations. Instead, despite his campaign pledges to pull out U.S. forces, he endorsed a Pentagon plan to again boost troop levels. The Americans, he said, would “fight to win.”

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington under the new government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, said Trump’s message was “exactly what we wanted.” Much as Karzai had, Ghani opposed any direct U.S. talks with the Taliban that excluded his government.

When Qatar came under diplomatic attack by its Persian Gulf neighbors, led by Trump allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Trump joined them in charging Qatari support for international terrorism, pointing to the Taliban office in Doha as one example.

It wasn’t until 2018 — as the Taliban had grown stronger rather than weaker on the ground, and his goal of complete withdrawal seemed further away — that Trump was convinced of the wisdom of negotiations.

That summer, Khalilzad — a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations under the George W. Bush administration who had spent the Obama years out of government — was contacted by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo explained that the president was concerned about how things were going in Afghanistan, and wanted to restart negotiations, according to U.S. officials at the time. Priorities included Taliban commitments to break its ties with al-Qaeda, to start peace talks with the Afghan government, and to begin a cease-fire.

But what came across most clearly to Khalilzad was that Trump’s primary goal — shared by the Taliban — was to get U.S. forces out.

Ghani, who had known Khalilzad since they were teenagers and suspected he sought his own position of power in their shared homeland, was not happy about the appointment, or the fact that the Afghan government was again being left out. The Americans were merely spinning their wheels in negotiations, he told them, and the Taliban representatives they met with — Agha had resigned as negotiator in a factional dispute among the militants in 2015, and the reported death of Omar — had never been representative of the group’s true power brokers, who resided in Pakistan.

Before Khalilzad began, he and Pompeo traveled to Pakistan and asked for the release of Baradar — arrested there in 2010, reportedly at the request of Karzai — as did Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed al Thani. In November 2018, Baradar arrived in Doha.

In his State of the Union address to Congress the following February, Trump said negotiations were accelerating, as Khalilzad and Baradar had reached preliminary agreement to gradually withdraw all U.S. forces — at that point numbering 14,000 — in return for a Taliban pledge not to allow al-Qaeda or other global terrorist groups to operate on Afghan soil.

“The other side is also very happy to be negotiating,” Trump said.

The talks in Doha were arduous. Like Iran, in its negotiations with the Obama administration over a nuclear agreement, Baradar and his team frequently delivered long, passionate speeches about how the Americans had destroyed Afghanistan, killed civilians and destroyed homes, installed a puppet government and done nothing positive for the country, people familiar with the talks said.

Khalilzad responded in kind, recalling that the Taliban had hosted al-Qaeda, which attacked the United States and killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. It had run a brutal and cruel government when it was in charge of Afghanistan, and had killed more Afghans than the Americans had. The militants didn’t even know Afghanistan any more, Khalilzad taunted Baradar at one point, inviting them on a tour of a modern Kabul they had not seen in 20 years.

Sometimes the sessions grew so contentious that they were abruptly suspended.

9/11 was as test;The books of the last two decades show how American failed.

But much of time, the Taliban negotiators were serious and painstaking, meticulously going over every word of proposed documents. While they argued meanings among themselves, the U.S. team concluded that their strength was in an ability to reach consensus and stick with it.

By late summer of 2019, a full draft was in place. Trump was pleased, and after Khalilzad finished briefing the White House team by video at a National Security Council meeting, the president announced that he wanted to bring the Taliban leadership to Camp David for a signing ceremony. Jaws dropped in silence around the table at the proposal, which Trump later announced on Twitter.

While none of his advisers thought Camp David was a good idea, they were far from agreement with each other over the draft agreement. Pompeo — echoing Trump’s determination to get the troops out, especially before the 2020 presidential election — was all for it, U.S. officials said at the time. National security adviser John Bolton, and many in the Pentagon, opposed it.

In early September, however, those divisions gained widespread media coverage when Trump announced the Taliban negotiations were finished after a series of attacks and bombings by the militants, including one that killed a U.S. soldier.

“They’re dead, as far as I’m concerned,” he told reporters outside the White House. Asked later whether plans to withdraw an initial 5,000 troops in early 2020 were also off the table, Pompeo told television talk-show hosts the next day, “I hope not. . . . I can’t answer that question. Ultimately, it’s the president’s decision.”

In Doha, the Taliban was dismissive. It had already rejected Trump’s Camp David idea, at least until after an actual agreement was signed. And why was Trump so upset about the death of one American soldier? The Taliban had never agreed to a cease-fire, Baradar told Khalilzad and Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, in a meeting at the home of the Qatari foreign minister. Negotiations had first begun years ago, he said, and the fighting had never stopped.

American airstrikes, Baradar noted, had killed hundreds, if not thousands of Taliban in airstrikes since the supposed withdrawal from combat operations in 2014.

But by November, Khalilzad was again talking to Baradar, asking him in a meeting in Pakistan whether the Taliban would agree to a brief “reduction in violence” to prove both good faith and the leadership’s ability to control its forces on the ground.

The Taliban “wants to make a deal. And we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire,” Trump told U.S. troops in Afghanistan during a Thanksgiving Day visit.

The Taliban was initially noncommittal, reminding that the draft deal abandoned in September called for a cease-fire only after the withdrawal deal was completed. By February, however, the agreement abandoned the previous September was again ready to be completed. Trump had agreed, provided a seven-day pause in the fighting that had been negotiated took place. The pause, observed by both sides for the most part, took place the last week in February.

Pompeo announced that the “deadlock” had been broken, and flew to Doha to witness the signing between Khalilzad and Baradar on Feb. 29. The Taliban team broke into applause, shouting ­“Allahu akbar.”

Trump, declaring “there hasn’t been a moment like this,” said he would be “meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not-too-distant future,” maybe even at Camp David.

Not everyone was happy with the terms of the deal, which set a May 2021 departure date for the last U.S. troops, in exchange for a Taliban promise not to attack American forces while they were headed out the door. Everything else — a Taliban pledge to keep al-Qaeda from plotting or launching attacks against the United States and its allies, a plan to begin talks between the militants and the Kabul government, with a cease-fire at the top of their agenda — was only vaguely stipulated. Ghani, under heavy U.S. pressure, released 5,000 Taliban prisoners; the Taliban turned over about 1,000 captured Afghan soldiers.

“The agreement was really a gift for the Taliban,” Ruttig said. “And they actually fulfilled it to the letter. There wasn’t much for them to fulfill.”

There were no attacks against the departing Americans, whom Trump started to pull out, at one point publicly promising, until he was reined in by military and White House advisers, that they would all be home by Christmas 2020. Trump gained little if any political advantage from the deal, as his Democratic opponent that year, Joe Biden, also promised to pull out the troops and end the war.

Talks with the Ghani government did not begin until the fall, then sputtered inconclusively. Far from a cease-fire, the Taliban, as if the withdrawal agreement had freed it from all constraint, began a massive spring offensive against Afghan security forces. By the time Biden had finished his own policy review, with fewer than 3,000 U.S. troops remaining, the militants had taken over much of the country and were poised for a final surge.

Afghanistan’s military collapse: Illicit deals and mass desertions

Biden decided to keep Khalilzad in place and the U.S.-Taliban talks with Baradar continued in Doha. But at the end of the day, U.S. negotiators later reflected, the militants had outlasted the Americans and both Trump and Biden had simply wanted to leave.

In April, after Ghani refused last-ditch U.S. entreaties to resign and offer the Taliban a power-sharing government, Biden announced the full withdrawal of U.S. troops by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks that started the war.

By Aug. 31, two weeks after Ghani fled the country and the triumphant Taliban marched into the capital, they were gone.