Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is completing a book about President Trump’s national security team and policies and has reported from Afghanistan for CNN since 1993. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump tweeted that “the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday.” Trump then said that he had “cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations” because the Taliban had “admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great soldiers.”
Trump can smell a bad deal when it is presented to him, and the deal that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his lead US-Taliban negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, is cooking up with the Taliban is a real stinker.
First, it’s just not possible to pick a worse moment to be cozying up to the Taliban.
Consider that photos of Taliban leaders meeting with Trump at Camp David would have landed on front pages everywhere as the United States commemorates the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on Wednesday. The Taliban, of course, sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda for years after they had attacked two US embassies in Africa in 1998 and a US warship in Yemen in 2000 – and again after the 9/11 attacks as well.
Second, however, you dress it up, Khalilzad is negotiating a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, not a peace agreement. Simply because the US withdraws its troops from a conflict doesn’t mean the war is over. President Barack Obama’s administration discovered that when it pulled all its troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011, which helped to create a vacuum that ISIS then deftly exploited. Trump has rightly criticized the Obama administration for that withdrawal.
In broad strokes the US deal with the Taliban, the precise details of which have been tightly held, calls for the phased withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, beginning with some 5,000 of the 14,000 presently stationed there. The ultimate goal of the deal is a total US withdrawal before the US presidential election in 2020. For their part, the Taliban must agree to end any active or passive support for jihadist terrorist groups on their territory as a condition for the continued withdrawal of American forces.
Third, the negotiations have encountered some significant snags, not least that the Taliban keep killing American soldiers even as they negotiate “peace.” The soldier that Trump referred to in his tweet, Sgt. 1st Class Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, was the 16th American serviceman to be killed in Afghanistan in 2019.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted about the Taliban, “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks … then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.” Quite so.
The fourth problem is that the Taliban has consistently refused to negotiate directly with the elected Afghan government, despite the fact that the outcome of their talks with the United States will deeply affect the Afghan people the Afghan government represents. The cancelled Camp David talks appear to have been an effort to bring Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani together, since Ghani was also going to be attending.
The fifth issue is that the US government is prioritizing “peace” negotiations with the Taliban rather than the electoral process in Afghanistan. Lost in all the hoopla around the talks with the Taliban is that there will be a presidential election in Afghanistan on Sept. 28. This will be the fourth such election since the Taliban were expelled from power after the 9/11 attacks, and while past elections have been marred by fraud, they have also brought about a peaceful transfer of power, which is quite rare in Afghan history.
Bizarrely, the US government’s position is that the peace talks with the unelected theocrats of the Taliban are more important than the elections contested by Afghanistan’s democratically elected leaders. The US ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, even acknowledged this publicly in June, saying, “Secretary Pompeo noted that highest priority is peace, as well as it’s important for election planning to go ahead without delay.”
The Trump administration seems to be trying to thread an impossible needle: to cut a peace deal with the Taliban, who are demanding a total American withdrawal from Afghanistan, while at the same time ensuring that the country does not revert to what Trump has termed a “Harvard for terrorists,” which a complete US withdrawal would surely help to enable.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is treating the Taliban as if the group is a government-in-waiting while simultaneously undercutting the legitimate Afghan government.
Last month retired General David Petraeus, who generally avoids making any kind of public statement criticizing American government policy, took to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, declaring “the kind of U.S. withdrawal that was inadvisable in Iraq eight years ago would be indefensible for Afghanistan today.” This was a strong statement coming from the general who had commanded both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It seems that Trump has now focused on the fact that cutting a withdrawal deal with the Taliban might saddle him with a loss in Afghanistan that could become a real headache in his second term, should he secure one.
Trump is willing to walk away from a negotiation, as he did in February when he abruptly canceled a summit in Hanoi with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The North Koreans had put on the table ceasing the production of plutonium at their Yongbyon nuclear facility – a well-known source of material for North Korea’s nuclear weapons – in exchange for the removal of all United Nations sanctions enacted since 2016.
Trump decided to walk away from the negotiating table since the North Korean offer left other uranium enrichment facilities functioning in that country while dropping the UN sanctions that would have ended any leverage he had over the North Koreans.
The winner from the canceled Camp David summit is the elected Afghan president Ghani, who will run for reelection at the end of this month and may well win. And whoever wins that election will be in a far stronger position to insist that the next round of negotiations with the Taliban must include the duly elected Afghan government.