Trump’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was close to concluding a deal with the Taliban that would have allowed Trump to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and to proclaim that he had ended an 18-year-old war. Then on Saturday evening, Trump himself blew up immediate prospects of an agreement with a series of tweets announcing that he was withdrawing an invitation for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban leaders to meet with him at Camp David because a Taliban car bombing in Kabul on Thursday had killed a U.S. soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, along with 11 other people.
Disinviting terrorists from Camp David seems like a good idea. It’s appalling that Trump would have even considered hosting Taliban leaders just days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks plotted by their ally, Osama bin Laden. Imagine what Trump — who excoriated President Barack Obama for negotiating with the Taliban — would have said if Obama had invited them for a sleepover. But Trump’s explanation for the cancellation — as with most things he says — makes little sense.
The Taliban have been staging attacks throughout their negotiations with the United States — and Afghan and U.S. security forces have been carrying out operations against it. The United Nations reports that 1,366 civilians were killed and 2,446 wounded during the first half of the year. Maybe Trump cares only about U.S. casualties? Well, 16 additional U.S. troops have been killed by hostile action in Afghanistan so far this year. Sgt. Ortiz’s death was tragic but hardly a departure from the violent norm, because the Taliban never agreed to a cease-fire.
It is bizarre to call off negotiations because the other side continues doing something it never agreed to stop doing. That is why savvy observers speculate that there must be another reason for Trump’s abrupt tweets.
It’s far from clear that the Taliban would have been willing to meet with Ghani or become props in Trump’s reality show; so far, they haven’t met with any representatives of a Kabul government they consider to be illegitimate. But the real problem may have simply been that Trump got cold feet about an agreement that has been criticized by his conservative allies, former U.S. generals and ambassadors in Afghanistan, and even by his own national security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Indeed, there was much grounds for criticism. It is telling that Khalilzad reportedly refused to give either Bolton or Ghani a copy of the agreement. That’s hardly a vote of confidence in its contents.
From what we have learned so far, the agreement called for the United States to pull 5,400 troops from Afghanistan within 135 days and the other 8,600 within roughly 16 months — conveniently close to the 2020 U.S. election. In return, the Taliban would have simply had to make a nebulous pledge to disown al-Qaeda and not allow their territory to be used for attacks on the United States. Khalilzad hoped that the Taliban and the Afghan government would reach a peace deal after the conclusion of the U.S. withdrawal agreement. But if they didn’t, the odds are that this deal would have resulted not in peace but in a civil war that would eventually leave the Taliban in control of much of the country — as it was before 9/11.
This could, in fact, still happen. Trump’s decision to scrap the Camp David meeting doesn’t mean he’s scrapping the negotiations. Recall that on May 24, 2018, he called off his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — before agreeing to see him after all less than three weeks later. These kinds of walkouts are a standard part of Trump’s negotiating repertoire. He thinks these histrionics give him “leverage.” His history of failed negotiations suggests otherwise.
Instead of producing a deal with China, he has sparked an endless trade war. Instead of denuclearizing North Korea, he has allowed Pyongyang to test ballistic missiles and expand its nuclear arsenal while refusing to send envoys to negotiate. Instead of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, he has actually accelerated it. Instead of reaching the “deal of the century” between Palestinians and Israelis, his peace plan has still failed to materialize. Now Trump’s special envoy for Middle East peace has resigned, to be replaced by Jared Kushner’s 30-year-old gofer. And negotiations to get Mexico to pay for the border wall? Fuhgetaboutit. That’s being funded by the Pentagon, which is diverting funds needed to pay for child care for military families and to rehabilitate “high risk” facilities that pose a threat to workers.
The Afghanistan mess confirms what has been obvious from the start: As the New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser and others have noted, Trump is a better dealbreaker than dealmaker.