Even without a functional process for making policy, the president received plenty of indications that bringing the Taliban to the U.S., on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was problematic. Newly fired National Security Adviser John Bolton refused to go on TV to defend the president’s idea, and was suspected of leaking the contents of the negotiations (the text of which he was only entrusted to read, not possess).
Under the proposed agreement with the Taliban, the U.S. would have immediately begun to reduce coalition-troop numbers to 8,600 and withdrawn completely by the end of 2020, closed five U.S. military bases, released thousands of Taliban prisoners in Afghan-government custody, and left the governance of Afghanistan to future negotiations among Afghans. The country’s name would have reverted to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which it had been termed under Taliban rule. Afghans would have perceived this reversion as the U.S. surrendering their country into Taliban hands, and they would have been correct in that perception.
It’s astonishing how little the Trump administration was willing to accept in exchange for an end to the conflict. The agreement didn’t even require the Taliban to commit to a cease-fire—all it had to do was promise not to allow Afghan territory to be used as a base for terrorist operations against the U.S. It merits emphasizing the “against the U.S.” part of the equation, because what that would have blared to America’s allies all over the world was that the U.S. is willing to separate its interests from those of Afghans and of countries that have been fighting alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan these 18 years. “America first” really does mean sacrificing the interests of others.
From the Taliban’s perspective, this was a terrific deal—America accepting defeat, striking a bargain with it that excluded the elected government of Afghanistan. The U.S. would have abandoned the prospects for a democratic Afghanistan, as well as progress in education and women’s rights, and consigned the country to Taliban rule, because the reductions in military support would almost certainly have led to that outcome. The Taliban would have had to recognize Ashraf Ghani’s government, but it could have afforded to do that because it would soon, no doubt, have overthrown it.
The president has now declared the negotiations dead. But he seems no less committed to withdrawing U.S. troops, because he subsequently tweeted that the U.S. military should not be “serving as policemen in Afghanistan.”
The president’s characterization represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. mission. Five years ago, the U.S. and its coalition partners shifted from conducting operations themselves to training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces. Afghans have been doing the most dangerous work of clearing their country of malign Taliban influence. Afghan National Security Forces have paid a devastatingly high price for it, too: More than 45,000 Afghan service members have been killed since 2014 alone. That’s about 20 killed a day. And yet they continue to volunteer.