It’s a high bar, but President Donald Trump’s announcement of his cancellation of talks at Camp David with the Taliban may stand as one of the most bizarre incidents of his time in office.
First, why did Trump schedule this summit to begin with? The U.S. negotiator in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had reached a peace agreement “in principle” with the Taliban. Once the deal was completed and announced, the Taliban were set to begin talks with the Afghan government later this month, under the auspices of Norway. But then, on the eve of this possible breakthrough, Trump suddenly decided to bring both parties—the Afghan and Taliban leaders—to Camp David so he could strike the final deal himself.
Trump said in a tweet on Saturday that he canceled the meeting—which, until then, was a tightly held secret—because the Taliban had just killed a U.S. serviceman in a car bomb attack. This doesn’t quite make sense, as the Taliban have killed 16 Americans since the peace talks began, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this weekend—rather improbably—that U.S. forces have killed more than 1,000 Taliban soldiers in just the past 10 days. Both sides had conceded, at the beginning of the talks, that the war would continue while the negotiations dragged on.
We don’t yet know why Trump called off the meeting, but there are two explanations that are more plausible. It could be that his top advisers, who all opposed the idea of a Camp David summit, finally persuaded him not to go through with it. (Negotiations with the Taliban are essential, but it would be disgraceful to welcome the enabling allies of al-Qaida anywhere on U.S. soil, especially so close to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, particularly at Camp David, where presidents and prime ministers have held historic summits.) Or it could be that the Taliban, who didn’t want to hold talks with the Afghan government until after a troop-withdrawal deal was struck with the United States, refused to attend, not wanting to be roped into a summit where Trump would try to strike a deal for withdrawal and reconciliation simultaneously.
In other words, here was another situation where Trump believed that he alone—as he has put it while speaking of several knotty issues—could cut through the tangle of disputes. He seems to believe that his deal-making prowess persuaded North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to halt his nuclear program (when, in fact, the program has continued to advance). He tweeted Monday morning (far from the first time) that he “has achieved more in the first 2 1/2 years” of his presidency “than perhaps any administration in the history of our Country.” So he probably really does believe that a single meeting at Camp David could make peace with the Taliban—just as President Jimmy Carter made peace there between Egypt and Israel—and could thus earn him the Nobel Peace Prize, which he has long and oddly coveted.
Of course, he doesn’t realize that it took 13 days of constant wrangling for Carter to eke the historic handshake from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—nor that those 13 days were preceded by intensive diplomacy behind the scenes as well as intensive study, by Carter and others, of the myriad issues involved. To Trump, everything is “easy”—from health care to Middle East peace to trade wars—and his predecessors had problems only because they lacked his genius for negotiating.
Another puzzle: Why did Trump announce that he had canceled the meeting? Very few people, even inside the administration, knew that it was in the works. Whatever the reason for its collapse, Khalilzad’s talks—and perhaps broader talks later this month in Norway—could have proceeded, as if nothing had happened. But having spilled the beans, Trump cast doubt on his ultimate role as a player in the peace process—and possibly on Khalilzad’s credibility as his true emissary. Far from waving the banner of a peacemaker, Trump has helped cement his reputation as a peace-breaker.
It was already iffy, at best, that the talks, which have been going on for nearly a year, would produce a true peace. The agreement in principle, which Khalilzad reached with the Taliban last week, called for the withdrawal of 5,000 U.S. troops within 135 days of the deal’s signing, and the pullout of the remaining 14,000 over the following 16 months, in exchange for the Taliban’s pledge to continue the fight against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in the country.
Whether or not the Taliban would ever recognize the current Afghan government, whether they would accept a mere partial role for themselves in a coalition government instead of fighting on for total power, whether they could hold al-Qaida and other terrorist groups at bay amid the ensuing chaos, whether the U.S. would (or should) ever withdraw completely, given the rising strength of ISIS and various sources of instability in neighboring Pakistan—all these questions are unanswerable at the moment. That is why many Afghans, though they desperately want peace after nearly two decades of war, are nervous about a truce that relies so heavily on trust from all sides.
Still, the Khalilzad talks are a beginning—and, remarkably, the first beginning in all these years. American commanders have stressed all along that insurgency wars, such as these, can’t be won through military means alone, that, ultimately, some political settlement—some formula for sharing power—has to be reached. For many years, those commanders refrained from pursuing a political settlement until after they racked up a string of victories on the battlefield and used them as leverage to force a peace on their own terms. But the victories never came; there has only been a deadly stalemate.
Trump has long been itching to get out of Afghanistan altogether. In his first year as president, then–Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and then–national security adviser H.R. McMaster sold him on sending in more troops as part of a “new strategy” for winning, which was neither new nor quite a strategy and which didn’t define “winning.” Trump has since backed off his hopes for victory, but neither he nor his current team has come up with any alternative strategic goal.
His present national security adviser, John Bolton, reportedly told Trump that he could continue with his plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan without striking a deal with the Taliban—which, of course, gives the Taliban still less incentive to strike a deal that weakens their hand.
There was at least a chance, for a while, that we might have worked out a graceful way out of this forever war, whose rationale—fairly clear when we invaded—has long grown dim and wavering. Trump’s graceless ploy for theatrics in the last week has dimmed the lights still further.
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Fred Kaplan is the author of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War.