The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Trump’s failed Afghanistan gambit, violence and uncertainty remains

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A disagreement over President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy doomed the tenure of John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser. Bolton exited the White House this week after falling out with Trump and other senior administration officials over the president’s desire to host militant leaders of the Taliban at Camp David. Trump ultimately decided against the set piece and later declared the talks with the Taliban “dead,” but Bolton’s opposition to the process and differences with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — whose envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was leading the negotiations — proved to be the last straw.

Trump has spent the days since announcing Bolton’s departure via tweet complaining about his former aide’s missteps. A growing list of candidates for the top foreign policy post in the White House include a nuclear envoy, a hostage negotiator and an outspoken ambassador. But while Washington fixates on its palace dramas, Afghanistan is on a knife-edge.

Though U.S. talks with the Taliban could be revived down the road, both sides have vowed to step up battlefield attacks. Afghanistan is already in the grips of one of the most violent periods of its recent history. Hundreds of civilians have died in a spate of bombing attacks in the past few weeks linked to the Taliban and other militant groups. According to U.N. data, American and Afghan airstrikes against militant positions between May and August increased by about 60 percent from the previous year. As it is, 2018 marked the bloodiest year for civilian deaths in the Afghan conflict since records have been kept.

Now, with the U.S.-led talks on ice, attention falls on embattled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is determined to stage new presidential elections as planned on Sept. 28 even in the absence of a long-mooted cease-fire with the Taliban. Ghani and his allies bristled for months on the sidelines as Khalilzad and U.S. officials engaged directly with the Taliban with Kabul out of the loop. Top Afghan officials argued the Trump administration was “delegitimizing” Ghani’s rule in its bid to wind down an 18-year war. Critics in the Washington establishment worried rapprochement with the fundamentalist Taliban would spell trouble for the country’s women and vulnerable minorities.

The weeks ahead are fraught. “The onus is all on Kabul now, and especially on President Ghani, to come up with a realistic strategy and create a national consensus that can lead to a settlement,” Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, said to my colleagues. “He has often been an opportunist, but this is a chance for him to be a statesman.”

The election campaign takes place under a cloud of suspicion and doubt. Ghani’s opponents accuse him of using government resources to skew the race in his favor. The Taliban has called on Afghans to boycott the vote; observers fear many will decide against casting a ballot out of intimidation and fear. Hundreds of polling stations sit in areas effectively controlled by the militants.

But the now-stalled talks with the Taliban hardly helped matters. Even as U.S. officials and Taliban emissaries were shuttling back and forth to meetings in Qatar, various militant factions were exploding car bombs and launching suicide and rocket attacks in strikes that killed scores of Afghans.

The Taliban were simultaneously “negotiating peace with Americans and waging war against civilians,” Jawed Ludin, a former senior Afghan diplomat, said to my colleague Siobhán O’Grady last week. “They shouldn’t be able to get away with such reckless and unacceptable levels of violence and bloodshed because this is really pushing the boundaries.”

The end of Trump’s talks provides a kind of clarity. “There is definitely a silver lining to this,” Haroun Mir, an analyst based in Kabul, told The Washington Post. “There was total confusion before. Everyone was afraid the U.S. would sign a cease-fire but the Taliban would continue their war against the Afghan government and people. Now President Trump has personally rectified this with his own tweet."

Ghani and his allies say they will stand defiantly against Taliban threats of violence. “Having the ability to inflict pain and violence is not necessarily a sign of strength,” Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s running mate, said in an interview with the Indian Express in which he accused the Taliban of being a Pakistani proxy with little political legitimacy at home. “Their violence is not backed by any political manifest. They have no charismatic leaders. All their politbureau are based in Pakistan and are not showing their faces.”

Trump had had enough of the thorny intractability of the war in Afghanistan. Like a growing number of Americans across the political spectrum, he saw the expense in blood and treasure of nearly two decades of U.S. operations and decided it was time to end it. But critics contend that his abrupt and volatile decision-making is only sowing the seeds for more chaos.

“The problem with the Trump administration’s approach isn’t negotiating with the Taliban, it’s the president’s reckless behavior in the service of himself that fans the flames of his chaos-first foreign policy,” Stephen Miles, executive director of progressive organization Win Without War, said in an email statement. “This latest incident adds to the pile of evidence that Trump isn’t the dealmaker he claims to be.”

The aborted Taliban talks present a picture of Trump’s foreign policy impulses in a microcosm. “Trump interpreted his predecessors’ record with these intractable problems as a license to disrupt. He broke with allies and embraced adversaries,” wrote Time magazine’s Brian Bennett. “He neutered the internal policy process that every president since Eisenhower has relied on. He issued policy changes via tweet, with little or no consultation. With the collapse of the Afghanistan talks, it’s worth asking whether Trump’s unorthodox approach has proved any better at solving the world’s problems, whether he’s made them worse, and what the costs have been.”

In the months ahead in Afghanistan, we may start to get a sense of the price.

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