President Donald Trump now knows what the British Empire, the Soviet Union and his post-9/11 presidential predecessors found out: staying in Afghanistan is terrible but getting out is hellishly hard.
His stunning revelation late Saturday that he had canceled secret talks at Camp David with the Taliban and the Afghan government sent shock waves through Washington that reverberated all the way to Kabul. Two days later, it’s clear that the demise of the blockbuster summit could snuff out one of his administration’s most promising diplomatic initiatives – one that is crucial to the President’s hopes of reelection in 2016.
“They’re dead. They’re dead. As far as I’m concerned they’re dead,” Trump said Monday, apparently killing off painstaking peace talks nearly a year in the making.
If the United States is ever to escape its military commitment to Afghanistan it will likely require a deal with the Taliban. But the President may now understand that ending a war in one of the world’s most tortured lands requires more than a photo op that will boost his reelection hopes and might win a Nobel Prize.
In the best scenario, Trump had second thoughts about a deal between the US and the Taliban at a time when the two sides are still locked in raging fighting and about which the Afghan government – which fears being deserted by the US – has registered deep concern.
But as is often the case with Trump, his history of concealing the truth and an opaque and impulsive style of leadership cloud his explanations about the dramatic episode.
The President said he ruled out the talks at the presidential retreat in Maryland after learning that the Taliban had killed a US soldier in Kabul. Yet the terror group and the US have waged high-intensity warfare against each other throughout an 11-month negotiating process led by former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.
According to CNN figures, the Taliban may have been responsible for the deaths of at least 16 US service personnel since the talks began in October 2018.
The President also said the Taliban had been “telling people they had made a big mistake.” Yet there is no evidence of such contrition from the militia’s public statements.
Trump’s tweeted bombshell about the meeting in itself left the impression that he was claiming credit for abandoning a diplomatic spectacular he had seemed to earlier choreograph largely to provide himself with a personal political win.
Doubts about Trump’s approach are also being fueled by the politically questionable proposal of scheduling a summit with the Taliban – the group that shielded al Qaeda and allowed it to plot the September 11 attacks, so close to the 18th anniversary of the world’s worst terror strike on Wednesday.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr expressed disquiet about the invitation on Monday and relief it did not go ahead.
“I don’t think that would be an appropriate group to invite to the US so I’m glad that’s not happening,” the North Carolina Republican said.
What happens next?
The collapse in the US-Taliban initiative could also have some serious repercussions.
It raised fears that by reaching prematurely for a deal, Trump could trigger reprisals from the terror group in the form of rising violence in Afghanistan ahead of crucial elections. And it appeared to dash, at least for now, the President’s hopes of bringing home all American troops before his own election in 2020.
It’s still possible that Trump could decide to disregard military advice and pull the troops out anyway.
But doing so would be risky and would expose him to accusations of gross neglect from Democrats were Afghanistan to be used as a staging post for terror attacks during his reelection race.
In a broader sense, Trump’s handling of the canceled summit threw a spotlight on his conduct of foreign policy.
His apparent insistence that he should personally lead the deal making after a secret diplomatic process reflects a style of statesmanship that puts him in the spotlight but struggles to deliver big wins. The trend has also shadowed his personal diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which seems to have taken place with little preparation and less follow-up and has done nothing to defang the isolated state’s nuclear program.
The weekend’s intrigue revealed splits within Trump’s national security team – opening rare gaps between Vice President Mike Pence and his boss – conflicts reported by CNN that the White House quickly denied.
“Actually, in terms of advisers I took my own advice. I like the idea of meeting. I’ve met with a lot of bad people and a lot of good people during the course of almost three years,” Trump said Monday.
“It was my idea, and my idea to terminate it,” he said of the meeting.
Lisa Monaco, who was a homeland security and counterterrorism adviser for President Barack Obama, warned that such impulsive decision-making was a recipe for geopolitical confusion.
“What is the strategy here?” she asked.
“That is really turning a national security process completely on its head,” she said on CNN, warning that the President was not getting the full range of necessary advice on such a sensitive issue.
Political pressures facing Trump
Trump, as a politician running for reelection, will be deeply aware that he is reflecting public exhaustion with the Afghan war, 18 years after it was launched to drive al Qaeda out of its Taliban-enabled haven following the September 11 attacks.
He won’t enjoy the comparison but Obama also vowed to bring US troops home from foreign wars – and created a headache for himself when campaign trail promises clashed with the realities of responsible government.
As commander in chief, Trump is duty bound to question the reluctance of US military leaders to leave Afghanistan and the continued need for American sacrifice and expenditures in Afghanistan.
There are arguments that over nearly two decades the US has failed to achieve the ambitious goals of building a functioning democracy in the war-torn nation. Some critics question whether even a slimmed-down counterterrorism operation is needed, believing that the threat of another 9/11-style attack being launched from Afghanistan is no more likely than one traced to another failed state, like Syria.
Such arguments offer a rationale for US troops to leave Afghanistan, and the President has already said he wants to draw down the American garrison to 8,600 from 14,000.
But Trump’s chase for an eye-catching triumph is also raising the question of whether he is so desperate for a political win that he risks squandering the sacrifice of more than 3,500 US and allied troops killed in Afghanistan.
A proposed US-Taliban deal would require the group to pledge not to support terror groups or to allow the staging of terror attacks from Afghan soil. The approach does not convince critics, who say the terror group cannot be trusted and who question whether all of its fighters are on board given its loose lines of command.
The cancellation of the Camp David talks came as a relief to the Kabul government.
Afghan government spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had been ready to travel to the US to explain to Trump his government’s reservations about the US initiative.
“How do you verify those assurances, and what is the proper mechanism in which we can say that ‘OK. So, al Qaeda and (the) Taliban will not be linked’?” he said.
CNN’s Ryan Browne and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this story.