On Saturday evening, just days before the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which led to America’s forever war in Afghanistan, President Trump revealed in a series of tweets that he had canceled a secret Sunday summit with Taliban and Afghan leaders at Camp David. The reason, he claimed, was that the Taliban had admitted to killing an American soldier and 11 others in a suicide bombing last week in order “to build false leverage” in its peace negotiations with the U.S.
“What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse,” the president declared.
But speaking of making things worse, the New York Times reported on Sunday that the president’s announcement was hardly the whole story. The Camp David meeting — according to Afghan, Taliban, and Western officials — was actually a failed gamble by the Trump administration. The summit, which the Trump team proposed late last month, was an attempt rush a conclusion to the negotiations by flying Taliban and Afghan leaders to the U.S. so that the parties could iron out the remaining details and conclude with a big peace-deal announcement and photo op.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators have reportedly made real progress in nine rounds of talks over the last year, suggesting America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan may finally soon be over. But finalizing the end of an almost two-decade war is not like finishing the production of a television-show season. Though Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — who is facing reelection at the end of month and had been mostly excluded from the talks — had agreed to the summit, Taliban leaders objected to the plan. They insisted that they would not meet directly with the Afghan government or travel to America until after the deal with the U.S. had been finalized. That didn’t happen, so the hastily arranged summit was scrapped and the Taliban was blamed.
But even if the summit had happened, it still wasn’t clear to Afghan leaders how the meeting and final negotiations would have played out, according to the Times. That means it’s entirely possible the Trump administration, unable to close the peace deal, planned to wing it and hope the summit led to a big, popular finish. That would be the strategy most consistent with President Trump’s track record of impulsive, spectacle-over-substance foreign-policy decisions. Trump, who promised to end the war during his campaign, has now gotten more involved in the negotiations, but whether that hurts or helps matters remains to be seen — and it certainly hasn’t gone well in other foreign arenas.
America’s top peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently announced that the U.S. and Taliban had reached an “agreement in principle” over the U.S. exit from the war. Roughly 14,000 U.S. troops remain deployed in the country, and the draft deal would have entailed them leaving over a 16-month period. About 5,400 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the spring of next year, leaving another 8,600 to support Afghan troops until the Taliban’s compliance with the agreement could be confirmed. In exchange, the Taliban would agree to enter immediate peace talks with the Afghan government and prevent ISIS, Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist group from operating out of their territory.
But as the U.S. came close to announcing the deal, there were signs it was falling apart. NBC News reported on Thursday that Afghan leaders balked at the proposed agreement, which they had no part in negotiating. In particular, the Afghans have been worried that the quick U.S. drawdown would just lead to more Taliban attacks — and the Taliban has been exacerbating those fears by ramping up the violence while peace negotiations were taking place. U.S. officials had hoped that the tentative deal would prompt the Taliban to cease hostilities, but that didn’t happen. In addition to two suicide attacks last week in Kabul, the militant group launched offensives in three other parts of the country, and kidnapped six Afghan journalists on Friday.
On Saturday, a senior U.S. military leader in Afghanistan warned that the Taliban’s recent attacks were “particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history.”
“Peace with a group that is still killing innocent people is meaningless,” President Ghani explained last week, and that statement was ultimately echoed by President Trump on Saturday. “If the Taliban could not maintain a ceasefire and were willing to kill innocent civilians during negotiations,” Trump said in his tweets, “then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.” Afghan leaders cited the Taliban attacks again on Sunday to justify the cancellation of the Camp David summit and to celebrate the cessation of peace negotiations.
Another sticky issue is when and how thousands of Taliban fighters will be released from Afghan jails — with Afghan leaders understandably concerned that those fighters would quickly join the ongoing Taliban offensive. The militant Islamist elephant in the room, critics of the peace negotiations argue, is that regardless of what the Taliban agree to, there is little reason to believe they won’t inevitably try to take over the country again once U.S. troops are gone.
It is not clear what the next step will be for the peace talks. President Trump suggested in his tweets that there would be no additional negotiations unless the Taliban commit to and follow through on a ceasefire. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that negotiations with the Taliban had indeed been halted, but that all of that could change in a day or two, depending on how Trump perceives the fallout.
At the very least, the negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban have now led to the Trump-calling-things-off-on-Twitter phase, which is arguably a sign of progress. Then again, Trump’s bluster-centric style of diplomacy has repeatedly failed to produce actual diplomacy, let alone substantive deals. And considering the fact that the Taliban have been fighting almost nonstop since the Soviet occupation, they probably won’t be influenced by anything Donald Trump says on Twitter — or at least not in way the president imagined, as Jason Lyall, the director of Dartmouth’s Political Violence FieldLab, explained in the Washington Post on Sunday:
The decision to cancel the summit publicly calls into question U.S. credibility, while also weakening pro-peace factions within the Taliban. This turnabout also shows how U.S. leverage over the Afghan government is dwindling, with the promise of Camp David not enough to persuade Ghani to swallow his concerns. The threat of a governmental collapse and outright Taliban victory has provided Kabul with a significant bargaining chip, if perhaps its only one, over its retreating American ally. Bottom line: Trump’s tweets may have made peace even harder to obtain.
Either way, last week’s deadly suicide bombing was not some final straw for Trump, as he and Pompeo have claimed, but rather a politically palatable excuse to save face after the administration’s plan for a peacemaking grand finale fell apart. The Taliban never agreed to a ceasefire, and violence is the only leverage the militants have. They have launched numerous deadly attacks on coalition forces and Afghan civilians while the peace negotiations have been underway. Those attacks didn’t derail the process before, and coalition forces have reportedly increased their activity against the Taliban at the same time. The war may be finally nearing an end, but there will definitely be more bloodshed before it does.
On Twitter, Trump cited the death of a U.S. service member as part of his justification for canceling the summit. That American was U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, a 34-year-old father of three from Puerto Rico who was serving his third tour in Afghanistan. He died after he was wounded in a Taliban suicide bombing near an Afghan intelligence office in Kabul on Thursday. The attack, one of two deadly suicide bombings launched by the Taliban in Kabul over the past week, also killed ten civilians and another NATO service member from Romania.
Barreto Ortiz was the 16th U.S. service member to be killed in the war this year. All told, more than 2,400 U.S. military personnel have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded during the longest war in American history, not to mention the countless Afghan and Pakistani civilians who have been killed or injured amid the fighting. For now, it seems certain that the conflict will continue into its 19th year next month.
This post has been updated throughout to reflect new details about the cancelled summit.