By RFE RL
By Frud Bezhan*
(RFE/RL) — U.S. President Donald Trump’s bombshell decision to cancel a secret meeting at Camp David with Taliban and Afghan leaders and halt peace negotiations with the militant group has upended nearly a year of painstaking diplomacy to end an 18-year war.
After nine rounds of grueling talks with the Taliban in Qatar, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said last week he had reached an agreement “in principle” with the Taliban militants.
Under the draft deal, all foreign forces would leave Afghanistan within 16 months in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban, who would start direct negotiations with Afghan officials over a cease-fire and a political settlement, reports said.
Trump said on September 7 that he broke off the talks following a deadly Taliban attack in Kabul two days earlier that killed an American soldier. But analysts said the reasons behind the president’s decision run deeper and could be a negotiating tactic, due to worries about the deal in Washington, and possibly a case of failed showmanship.
Worries In Washington
Key figures in the Trump administration and other top officials in Washington have opposed the deal. Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton, has argued that the Taliban cannot be trusted to fulfill their promises. Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina), a vocal Trump ally, has said that rushing to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan would be a “strategic blunder.”
Outside Trump’s circle, U.S. lawmakers and former senior officials have criticized a deal that does not bring about a cease-fire and does not guarantee that the militant group will stick to their commitments once foreign troops leave the country. The Taliban’s pledges include severing ties with international terrorist groups and starting direct negotiations with the Afghan government.
Three former senior U.S. envoys to Afghanistan told RFE/RL that a premature exit of U.S. forces could unleash a new, larger, and much more dangerous war.
“I think it is Washington’s mounting concern over the deal, and not the Taliban attack cited in Trump’s tweet, that has prompted Trump to pull the plug on talks,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “In recent days, the influence of talks skeptics within the administration started to pay off, likely leading Trump to conclude that it’s not worth inking a flawed deal.”
Pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan was one of Trump’s main campaign promises.
Reports suggest Trump attempted to get personally involved in the peace agreement by inviting Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Camp David, the renown presidential retreat outside of Washington, where he would likely announce the deal. While Ghani agreed, the Taliban is believed to have declined meeting Trump before the deal was signed.
Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official and leading expert on Afghanistan, said Trump wanted a “photo op and a high-ratings TV show,” adding that “when it didn’t work out, he cancelled it.”
Rubin added that the Kabul attack that killed an American soldier was “just an excuse to cancel the show.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar (Democrat-Minnesota) told CNN that “it’s just another example of the president treating foreign policy like it’s some kind of game show. This isn’t a game show.”
U.S. lawmakers criticized Trump’s plan to bring a group to the United States that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently called “Taliban terrorists.” Many also expressed shock that the secret talks would have been held just days before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks that were carried out by Al-Qaeda, whose leaders were harbored by the Taliban.
U.S.-Taliban talks are likely to resume at some point because many say there is no military solution to the conflict as no side is able to break the current military stalemate in its favor.
Pompeo said Washington is still interested in agreeing to a deal, while the Taliban said it was hopeful negotiations could resume.
Analysts said Trump’s abrupt end to talks could be a negotiating tactic to get more concessions from the Taliban.
Jonathan Schroden, a security expert at CNA, a U.S.-based nonprofit research and analysis organization, said it would be “typical Trump brinksmanship to angle for a better deal.”
“I’d put my money on U.S. demands for the Taliban to offer more on the cease-fire element of the deal” in order to get the talks back on track, he said.
“If U.S. negotiations resume with the Taliban, the U.S. will certainly want to pursue a deal that obliges the insurgents to lay down arms before any U.S. troops leave the country,” said Kugelman. “The question will be what the U.S. does to give the Taliban an incentive to agree to such a concession.”
A permanent cease-fire was originally one of the key U.S. demands during the talks, but was then relegated to intra-Afghan negotiations that follow the U.S.-Taliban deal.
The draft agreement does mention a cease-fire but does not explicitly include an agreement or date for a cease-fire to take place. Instead it indicates that those details are to be discussed among the Afghans.
Khalilzad said the Taliban will immediately reduce violence in provinces where U.S. troops would pull out from and will not attack departing American forces.
Analysts said the Taliban has refused a cease-fire with the Afghan government because violence is their main leverage in talks.
The lack of a formal cease-fire in the draft deal was a blow to Afghans, who are bearing the brunt of the world’s deadliest conflict.
Afghan Presidential Election, More Violence
The breakdown in U.S.-Taliban negotiations was met with relief in Kabul. Ghani had feared a deal would scuttle the September 28 presidential election he is widely expected to win.
With the cessation of talks, the vote looks certain to be held, analysts said.
“There is no alternative to the election now,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based analyst. “Any alternative mechanism will take a lot of time to be debated before we reach a national political consensus. We are thinking in terms of months and not weeks.”
With no deal, many Afghans are bracing for an escalation of Taliban attacks. The militant group has urged Afghans to boycott the vote and said polling stations would be targeted.
Violence has escalated across Afghanistan in recent weeks, including several deadly bombing attacks in Kabul and assaults on three different provincial capitals.
“The Taliban has already intensified their attacks, but it is obvious that they will not be able to overrun the Afghan security forces and take over major urban areas,” said Mir. “In addition, aside from perpetuating violence against the people, they lack a clear agenda to serve as an alternative governing force.”
- Frud Bezhan is a correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.