Updated: September 8, 2019 11:22:54 am
Written by Michael Crowley, Lara Jakes and Mujib Mashal
President Donald Trump said on Saturday that he had canceled a secret meeting at Camp David with Taliban leaders and the president of Afghanistan and was calling off monthslong negotiations that had appeared to be nearing a peace agreement.
“Unbeknownst to almost everyone,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets, Taliban leaders and the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, were headed to the United States on Saturday for what would have been a politically electrified meeting at the president’s official Camp David retreat in Maryland.
But Trump said that “in order to build false leverage,” the Taliban had admitted to a suicide car bomb attack Thursday that had killed a U.S. soldier and 11 others in the capital of Kabul. “I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote.
“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump added. “How many more decades are they willing to fight?”
Trump’s announcement was startling for multiple reasons. A surprise summit at Camp David with leaders of an insurgent group that has killed thousands of Americans since the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan would have been a sensational diplomatic gambit, on par with Trump’s meetings with the once-reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. A senior administration official said the meeting had been planned for Monday, just two days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were plotted from Afghanistan and led to the United States’ invasion of the country.
The move also appears to scuttle — for now — Trump’s long-standing hope to deliver on a campaign promise to withdraw U.S. troops from an 18-year conflict that he has called an aimless boondoggle. It comes amid stubborn resistance within Afghanistan’s government about the emerging agreement, not only for security reasons but because Ghani has been determined to preserve a planned Sept. 28 election, which he is favored to win. The Taliban have insisted on postponing the election before proceeding with negotiations with the Afghan government.
Several people familiar with the diplomacy between the Trump administration and the Taliban puzzled over Trump’s stated decision to cancel peace negotiations entirely in response to one U.S. casualty, however tragic. The Taliban had not agreed to halt their attacks on Americans in advance of a formal agreement. That raised the question of whether Trump might have been looking for a pretext because the talks had run into trouble.
Many other details of the scrapped Camp David meeting were unclear Saturday night. The senior Trump administration official said that the decision to cancel the meeting had been made Thursday but that Trump had delayed his announcement. On Friday, Afghan officials confirmed that Ghani postponed a planned meeting in Washington. One person familiar with the diplomacy said that the plan for a Taliban visit to Washington had not been under discussion until about a week ago.
It was also unclear whether Trump’s halt to the peace negotiations would be permanent. The president has reversed such decisions in short order before. In May 2018, for instance, he abruptly canceled his second summit with Kim, only to reschedule it days later. But several people familiar with the Afghan talks said Saturday that it could be difficult to restart them.
The negotiations have been underway since last winter, when Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, began regular trips to Doha, Qatar, for grueling sessions with Taliban representatives. U.S. and foreign officials said that the talks had reached an advanced stage and that, until Saturday night, an agreement with the Pashtun insurgent group that once harbored al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden was close at hand.
In nine rounds of negotiations, Khalilzad painstakingly worked toward what would be a phased peace agreement — initially a deal between the United States and the Taliban that would open the door for direct negotiations between the Afghan sides, before all of it comes together in a final Afghan peace deal.
Khalilzad has pledged to draw down U.S. military troops in exchange for a partial cease-fire by the Taliban. In a recent interview with the Afghan channel ToloNews, he said 5,400 U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan within 135 days after the agreement is signed.
That agreement would initially only reduce the number of U.S. troops to about what it was when Trump took office in 2017.
As for the remaining 8,600 U.S. forces, they would leave according to a gradual timeline that officials said could be within 16 months.
That would allow Trump, who has been routinely critical of expensive U.S. interventions in the Muslim world, to declare that he had ended a long conflict that has grown unpopular and obscure with the American public and to boast that he had achieved an outcome his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had sought in vain.
The reality could be more complicated. Trump has hinted that the United States would retain “strong intelligence” in the country, language that some experts believe to describe plans for a robust presence of armed CIA operatives. And even if an initial deal with the Taliban were to be reached, its enforcement could face numerous pitfalls.
Critics of the nascent agreement — including the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus — have warned that it could lead to the return of al-Qaida. Several have invoked the cautionary example of Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq, which many national security experts blame for the 2014 emergence of the Islamic State in that country.
And in a Sept. 3 statement published by the Atlantic Council, nine former senior U.S. diplomats with extensive experience in Afghanistan warned that a “major withdrawal of U.S. forces should follow, not come in advance of real peace agreement.” Anarchy in Afghanistan after a premature U.S. exit “could prove catastrophic for U.S. national security” and would “underscore to potential enemies that the United States and its allies are not reliable,” the statement said.
Such critics have pointed to a recent wave of Taliban attacks as a sign that the insurgent group cannot set aside violence. The attack cited by the president involved a car bomb detonated at a checkpoint near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Afghan government officials who have been briefed on the negotiations privately said Khalilzad did not force enough concessions from the Taliban to ensure stability as the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan.
One official said the agreement between Khalilzad and the Taliban will not ensure that national elections take place Sept. 28, as Ghani has demanded. Rather than requiring a nationwide cease-fire, it calls for a reduction of violence in Kabul and Parwan. And, the Afghan government official said, it may allow the Taliban to continue referring to itself in official conduct as the “Islamic Emirate” — as it did when the extremist group was ruling Afghanistan with fear.
If anything, said one Afghan official, the negotiations appear to have only emboldened the Taliban. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to more frankly discuss the closed-door briefings.
“They are much more emboldened and they have a chance to take over,” the Afghan official said on Wednesday.
Hours after the Thursday bombing, Khalilzad and the top commander in Kabul arrived for a surprise meeting with the Taliban in Doha. They went straight into unexpected and unannounced talks that lasted into the early morning.
At the time, it was unclear what they were negotiating when the special envoy had declared the agreement was final “in principle.” Officials refused to confirm that it was related to the uptick in violence, but now it seems to have been a last-minute effort to salvage the process.
One Western official said a deal had been nearly at hand but appeared to have been jeopardized by showmanship. Now it has created an environment where the Taliban, as well as a skeptical region that includes Iran and Russia, will conclude that no process with the Americans can be trusted, the official said.
“So what comes next in terms of strategic policy options? The two main ones seem to be either keeping the current troop footprint in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, which Trump clearly doesn’t want to do, or start to draw down anyway, but thus without getting any concessions for it,” said Dan Feldman, who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration. “That seems like the worst possible result — withdrawing immediately and irresponsibly, leaving both a security and political vacuum.”
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