In suddenly announcing, on the night of Sept. 7, a pause in peace negotiations with the Taliban and saying, on Sept. 9, that they were stalled “for good,” President Trump again highlights the inconsistency of his foreign policy. An improvised president and improvised decisions. It would be amusing, if his thoughtlessness weren’t so deleterious.
The breakdown was caused by a mix-up. Deciding that a peace agreement was imminent and driven by the pathological need to show off, Donald Trump then decided, on a whim, to invite Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Camp David on Sept. 8, to seal the deal. At some point between Saturday and Sunday, he apparently realized that the political show he wanted to put on was turning into a fiasco.
The alleged pretext is misleading. Mr. Trump claimed that his reversal was due to the death of a U.S. soldier in an attack last Thursday in Kabul. The sergeant was the 16th soldier to die this year at the height of tensions since negotiations began between the Taliban and Americans. The violence, which continues to kill thousands of civilians each year, had never before prevented the direct talks, opened a year ago, from continuing.
The real reasons are completely different. If the negotiations allowed the parties to settle on the outline of an agreement to end the 18-year war—progressive U.S. military withdrawal in exchange for Taliban commitment to cut ties with terrorist organizations—they were particularly concerned with one point on which the negotiators failed to build bridges in time: the United States’ desire to maintain an “anti-terrorist” force in Afghanistan after its departure in late 2020.
Then, the idea of holding a “summit” at Camp David with Taliban leaders, was no doubt untimely, and likely to be seen as offensive by the American public. The mere fact of the Taliban setting foot at Camp David, the mecca of American diplomatic mythology, would have horrified many, especially because this summit would have been held near the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Finally, there were great expectations placed on this summit, namely that it would lead to a genuine peace treaty, despite the fact that the Taliban view President Ghani’s government as illegitimate. This reality has been, from the beginning, completely removed from the talks. What shortcuts Trump is willing to take to satisfy his ego.
Trump is trying hard to find a way to withdraw the 14,000 soldiers still stationed in Afghanistan, so that he can say by the 2020 presidential election that he has kept his promise. What U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has negotiated for a year is, in fact, less a peace agreement than an American surrender. One wonders how much weight the Taliban’s promise to cut ties with terrorist organizations holds within these negotiations, particularly given the fact that they’ve so far ignored the imperative for a truly democratic inter-Afghan dialogue. For peace to actually be achieved, in light of the urgency amid which the Americans are retreating (of which the Taliban is not fully aware) they’ll need to leave the door open a bit to the possibility of their return to power in Kabul. Whether encouraging a national reconciliation with these religious fanatics is the ultimate goal, the West simply cannot wash its hands of the situation.
Did Trump really give up on negotiations “for good?” Maybe, maybe not. There is such a sense of urgency in the White House that, according to media rumors, there’s now talk of a U.S. withdrawal without an agreement, following the position defended by the hawk John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser. What comes next, against the Afghans – and to the Afghans – is total resignation. It is indisputable that 18 years of military intervention has amply demonstrated that Americans are right to want to tear themselves away from the Afghan “quagmire.” However, this is not a reason to leave now. A withdrawal without an agreement would destroy the fragile gains the population has made, in terms of access to education and political and individual freedoms.
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