Updated on September 10, 2019 at 1:15 p.m. ET
Yesterday, Mike Pompeo was all over television, joining so many political shows that one half-expected him to pop up for his next interview in the sportscasters’ booth at a football game. And during each appearance, the U.S. secretary of state told the same story about the presidential tweets that in one minute on Saturday night had terminated, for now, the most serious diplomatic effort ever to end America’s longest war—just three days before the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that precipitated the conflict.
U.S. officials were making unprecedented progress in negotiations with the Taliban, Pompeo explained. They had pressured the Islamist fundamentalist movement, which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and other 9/11 plotters, to make several momentous commitments: publicly breaking with al-Qaeda, reducing violence in Afghanistan, engaging in dialogue with “their other Afghan brothers and sisters.” So within reach were “peace and reconciliation” that Donald Trump was moved to invite the Afghan president and Taliban leaders to his Camp David retreat in Maryland to personally seal the deal at a secret summit yesterday.
That all changed when the Taliban killed an American soldier in an attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul, last week. The brazen bid to build leverage ahead of the talks, Pompeo noted with regret, sabotaged the Taliban’s stature in Trump’s eyes as a good-faith negotiating partner. So the president, as he is wont to do, abruptly called the whole thing off.
Today Trump defended his decisions to host the Taliban at Camp David and then suddenly scrap the plan, both of which he described as “my idea.” He suggested he was still interested in an eventual negotiated solution with the group, noting that diplomatic meetings are the only way to conclude wars, while dashing hopes for one in the near term. Given the Taliban’s targeting of an American service member and civilians, the talks are “dead as far as I'm concerned,” he said. “You can’t do that with me.” Among the problems with this narrative is that it concerned a militant group that the Trump administration has bargained persistently with through 15 previous killings of American soldiers this year alone. The Taliban has killed and wounded thousands of U.S. troops over the past couple of decades. According to the latest statistics, it was responsible for three-fourths of deaths from terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, and one-fifth of terrorism-related deaths worldwide, in 2017. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” the president inquired on Saturday. Precisely the kind of noxious folks, as Trump must know, whom his negotiators have been huddling with in Qatar for more than a year now.
In truth, Trump’s cancellation of the Camp David meeting and suspension of peace talks reflect a reality that was evident well before a bomb detonated near the vehicle of Sergeant First Class Elis Barreto Ortiz: The peace process and proposed agreement rest on an exceedingly shaky foundation. The writing for this move was on the wall, and this weekend the president essentially tweeted it out. The latest bout of bloodshed may have played some role in the actions Trump just took, but it is also a convenient out for an administration that had gone all in on a floundering initiative.
One of the expectations of any pact, for example, was that the Taliban would not only disown al-Qaeda, but also guarantee that its territory wouldn’t be used by jihadists to launch attacks against the United States. It’s far from clear that the Taliban would have been willing or able to enforce that condition, especially once the U.S. military fully withdraws from the country. Senior al-Qaeda figures are thought to be hiding out along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the Taliban is effectively a major power. As of this summer—mere months before Americans apparently came close to seeing Taliban leaders at the president’s storied country getaway in the run-up to September 11 commemorations—United Nations Security Council reports were describing the Taliban as the “primary partner” of al-Qaeda and all other foreign terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan except the Islamic State, and Afghanistan as a “continuing safe haven” for al-Qaeda’s leadership.
Then there’s the matter of whether the United States was really prepared to pull all its forces out of Afghanistan. Trump had announced plans to reduce the American military presence by 5,400 soldiers, but to keep more than 8,000 troops there indefinitely to ensure that the Taliban honored its commitments. That would have been close to the number in the country at the end of Barack Obama’s administration.
Taliban negotiators might have told their American counterparts that they would tamp down the bloodletting in return for a U.S.-military drawdown, but they never agreed to a cease-fire as negotiations proceeded. In fact they took the opposite approach, seeking to increase pressure on their adversary by claiming a series of major attacks while the talks progressed. The Taliban condemned a recent assault on a wedding party by the local ISIS affiliate that killed 63 people, but that underscored another danger: Even if the Taliban can credibly renounce violence and pledge not to host terrorist groups, the leadership can’t necessarily control what its adherents do, let alone the activities of rival groups like the Islamic State.
Trump and Pompeo have denounced the Taliban for resorting to violence to enhance its negotiating position, but the United States has likewise concluded that escalating the fight will be to its advantage, intensifying the battle. “We’ve killed over a thousand Taliban in just the last 10 days,” Pompeo said yesterday. “Unfortunately, applying military pressure to the Taliban is necessary to get the negotiated outcome that we’re looking for.”
Still, as with its negotiations with China, Iran, and North Korea, which Pompeo deliberately drew comparisons to yesterday to illustrate Trump’s intolerance for anything short of stellar deals, the U.S. administration has struggled to trade in the leverage it has amassed in Afghanistan for a diplomatic breakthrough. “If they don’t deliver on the commitments that they’ve made to us now for weeks and in some cases months, the president of the United States is not going to reduce the pressure,” the secretary of state asserted in regard to the Taliban, though he tends to say pretty much the same thing these days about the Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans.
U.S. negotiations with the Taliban have also not included the Afghan government, which America has expended billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defend. The Taliban still calls that government a “puppet” and refuses to recognize it—hence Pompeo’s anodyne reference to the Taliban consenting to speak with “other Afghan brothers and sisters” rather than the country’s duly elected leaders.
Afghan-government officials, in turn, have staked out different positions from the Trump administration, such as demanding that the Taliban adhere to a cease-fire as a precondition for talks. And they have accused the United States of undermining them in the throes of their fight with the Taliban. The Taliban is estimated to contest nearly half of the country’s districts, and control roughly 20 percent of them, but that doesn’t mean it is strong enough to overthrow the government.
“No Afghan insurgency has ever toppled an Afghan government that has maintained the support of an international power,” Thomas Barfield, an anthropologist and Afghanistan expert at Boston University, told The Atlantic before Trump’s Saturday announcement. The Taliban can hold mountains and deserts, perhaps, but not cities, he explained. Afghanistan is a young society; about half the population was born after 2001 and has no memory of Taliban rule. The Taliban “is in a great political position right now, because everyone believes they’re winners,” Barfield said. “But there’s plenty of people on the Kabul side who say, ‘Oh yeah? How are you going to get rid of us?’”
The U.S.-Taliban peace deal under consideration would have left so-called intra-Afghan issues to be sorted out at a later date that might never have come, conjuring a range of futures for Afghanistan—from more Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s governance, to a protracted and violent stalemate, to a return to full-blown civil war.
Ultimately, Trump and the Taliban want the same thing: American troops out of Afghanistan. This common ground has both greased the long-stuck wheels of diplomacy and complicated the endeavor. The president’s very public willingness to grant the Taliban its key demand, as a result of his view that the war has sapped the United States of its blood and treasure, gave the insurgents less incentive to offer costly concessions in exchange. Why purchase what someone seems to want to give you for free?
“How many more decades are they willing to fight?” an indignant Trump asked on Saturday. The same question could be put to Americans. And the odds don’t appear in favor of the U.S. president, who vowed to end the forever wars, and the distracted, depleted, and disillusioned nation he leads 7,000 miles away from the upheaval in Afghanistan.