President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel peace negotiations with the Taliban has thrown the uncertainty of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan into stark relief and raised questions about the president’s commitment to his own avowed mission to bring troops home from costly engagements overseas.
The Trump administration for months has signaled that peace negotiations with the Taliban were nearing their final days, with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad publicly saying that a deal had been reached “in principle” that would jumpstart a conditioned American withdrawal. And in recent weeks, Trump has signaled an increased interest in the talks, repeatedly deriding the 20-year combat mission as a mere “police” operation unworthy of U.S. military involvement.
Now, after a hasty attempt to intervene personally with Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David fell apart, the president tweeted that he had “called off peace negotiations” with the Taliban. On Monday, Trump blamed a car bombing in Kabul last week that killed an American service member for his decision to end the talks. (Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz was the sixteenth American to die in Afghanistan in 2019 as negotiations have been ongoing.)
“They’re dead. They’re dead. As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead,” Trump said Monday of the talks. “They thought that they had to kill people in order to put themselves in a little better negotiating position… You can’t do that with me.”
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan on Monday that the military is now likely to accelerate “a full spectrum” of operations against the Taliban, saying that “whatever targets are available, whatever targets can be lawfully and ethically struck, I think we’re going to pursue those targets.”
The stunning reversal is not the first time Trump has walked up to the brink of a significant withdrawal from a counterterrorism campaign, only for the effort to combust with uncertain implications under pressure from the Washington security establishment. In December, he shocked Washington when he announced what many of his senior military leaders, including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, thought was a premature U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Troops would come home “immediately,” Trump said. Nine months later, there are still 1,000 U.S. ground troops at any given time in Syria, with fresh faces revolving in and out from the substantial American presence at bases in neighboring Iraq and other countries, and air strikes continuing to hit ISIS targets.
Trump, who campaigned on ending America’s wars and has called the lengthy mission in Afghanistan “ridiculous,” often expresses his desire to bring the roughly 14,000 troops stationed there home. But convinced by advisors in the early days of his presidency to increase troop levels, Trump has since sent mixed signals by both complaining about the U.S. role and boasting that he could “win” the war in a week with a nuclear weapon but that he did not want to “kill 10 million people.”
The apparent tension between the president’s rhetoric and his policies committing troops to war have frustrated his critics, including military veterans in Congress.
“We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for 18 years—the longest war in U.S. history. Nearly three of those years have been under President Trump. If he wanted to bring our troops home, he could. He doesn’t want to. It’s that simple. The rest is just political theater,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., a frequent critic of the president who defected from the Republican Party this summer.
The idea of a peace deal with the Taliban has been deeply controversial. Former officials and lawmakers of both parties have raised fears that it would trade a short-term political victory for the president while doing nothing to prevent another 9/11-type attack on the United States.
Since Saturday, the Trump administration has offered contradictory statements in response to questions about the future of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on five Sunday talk shows said that talks were dead “for the time being.” A top Pentagon spokesman on Monday told reporters that the military is continuing to support an effort towards a negotiated settlement to end the 18-year conflict.
“We’re going to provide State Department as much maneuver space as possible for them to negotiate a successful settlement,” said Jonathan Hoffman, who declined to answer questions about any possible troop withdrawals. “I’m not going to get ahead of any agreement that’s taking place or any agreement that’s being negotiated.”
He reiterated the longstanding Pentagon position that “the only peaceful end to the conflict in Afghanistan is going to be a political solution” involving “the Taliban and the current Afghan government coming together and sitting down.”
Trump told reporters at the White House Monday that, “We’d like to get out but we’ll get out at the right time.”
The proposed deal with the Taliban called for a gradual withdrawal of American troops, with about 5,000 coming home within six months, in exchange for assurances from the Taliban not to allow al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups a safe haven to plan external attacks on the United States. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said last month he was assured that whatever reduction the president determined, U.S. forces would be able to fulfill their counterterrorism mission. Trump has been under fierce pressure even from Republican allies, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who believe that the Taliban can’t be trusted to uphold its end of the bargain.
“In the best case, we would maintain a long term military presence in order to deter the Taliban from trying to take over and in order to be able to collect intelligence on al-Qaeda and ISIS, and we would view it politically as exactly the same as keeping troops in Western Europe during the Cold War, and in South Korea as we have for a very, very long time.” said Michael Morell, a former deputy and acting director of the CIA and host of the intelligence podcast “Intelligence Matters.”
“In my mind, the choice of trusting the Taliban is not realistic.”
To some analysts who supported Khalilzad’s efforts to broker a deal with the Taliban worry that Trump’s tweets increase the chances that he will try to pull the plug on Afghanistan in the same way that he announced a withdrawal from Syria — abruptly and with no conditions. National Security Advisor John Bolton has advised him that he can pull out 5,000 troops without an agreement. To others, it’s a signal that the war will continue to grind on. “How many more decades are they willing to fight?” Trump tweeted Saturday.
There is a third option, some analysts say.
Johnny Walsh, an Afghanistan analyst with the United States Institute of Peace and a former lead advisor on the Afghan peace process in the Department of State, called the tweets “a serious blow to the peace process but not necessarily a fatal one.”
“If the U.S. administration decides that it would like to return to the negotiating table to finalize the deal, I read the Taliban statements since Saturday night as signalling openness to that,” he said.
In other words, the whole episode since Saturday night could evaporate into the ether of a news-saturated Washington — essentially turning back the clock to Saturday morning.
“We’re going to make some decisions, I think, back in our nation’s capital over the next few days and that will give us increased guidance going ahead,” McKenzie said Monday.