In a tweet on Saturday, Sept. 7, the U.S. president called off negotiations on the withdrawal of his troops from Afghanistan. This is a major failure for Washington.
Donald Trump cannot be blamed for his commitment to keeping his campaign promises. However, he also has another obsession: to distinguish himself from his predecessors, who, in his eyes, have all failed. The announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while he is already campaigning for the 2020 presidential election, should have allowed him to check both boxes: "Bring the guys home" as promised, and succeed where Barack Obama had failed.
A peace plan to get out of the Afghan quagmire 18 years after ill-advisedly going there to drive out the Taliban and al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks. Who wouldn’t dream of such a thing? Trump thought he could make it happen. He even saw himself so close to this goal that he planned to stage his victory to reflect his ambition, his taste for showmanship and his penchant for transgression.
The agreement would have taken place at Camp David. Although Trump has little appreciation for the rusticity of this country retreat, it is an iconic place for American diplomatic accomplishments: Here, Jimmy Carter brought together Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar el-Sadat in 1978. The negotiations would have been held close to the highly symbolic date of September 11; they would have brought together Taliban leaders yes, the Taliban at Camp David and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Divisions and Confusion
The process seemed to be well under way. After nine rounds of talks in Qatar with Taliban representatives, the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, of Afghan origin himself, said he was on the verge of negotiating an agreement in principle. This agreement included the gradual withdrawal of 14,000 U.S. troops still stationed in Afghanistan, with the first contingent of 5,000 leaving the country soon. In exchange, the Taliban pledged to fight terrorism and engage in inter-Afghan reconciliation talks.
Clearly, the American president was counting his chickens before they hatched. It may have been premature to count on the support of the Afghan president when his government had been excluded from the Doha negotiations at the request of the Taliban. It may also have been naïve to consider the Taliban to be reliable partners: The announcement of an agreement in principle by Khalilzad on Sept. 2 on Afghan television was greeted with a bomb attack targeting a fortified complex occupied by foreigners in Kabul, which killed 16 people and was immediately claimed by the Taliban. But, above all, Trump seems to have underestimated the divisions and confusion within his own team on the subject. According to The New York Times, National Security Advisor John Bolton fought against the draft agreement, which was actively supported by the head of diplomacy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
True to form, Trump theatrically cancelled all negotiations via Twitter on Saturday, Sept. 7, justifying this decision following a second attack on Thursday in which two NATO soldiers, an American and a Romanian (Trump only mentioned the American), were killed. Pompeo later attempted to explain to the media that the Taliban had, in fact, not kept its word, but that this wasn’t the end of the story.
History will remember that Trumpian diplomacy was weakened by this failure, by favoring showmanship on a notoriously complex issue. Yet again.