US president Donald Trump announced on 7 September 2019, through a series of tweets, that secret talks he had planned to hold between the Taliban and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at the presidential Camp David retreat in Maryland had been shut down. The talks were aimed at signing a formal agreement between the United States and the Taliban, negotiating the end of the 18-year war in Afghanistan. Trump’s decision came in response to a Taliban attack on the Afghan capital Kabul two days prior, which killed 12 people, including a US soldier.
Trump's announcement of a meeting with Taliban leaders, branded a terrorist organization by the United States, on US soil, just days before the 18th anniversary of 9/11, sparked widespread indignation in media and political circles in Washington This was exacerbated by leaks from within the White House confirming that the dismissal of Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, on 10 September, was directly linked to his opposition to negotiations with the Taliban.
Outline of the Draft Agreement
The Trump administration has been negotiating with the Taliban for nearly a year in the Qatari capital, Doha, which, in early September 2019, resulted in a preliminary draft agreement that was kept top secret. The level of discretion was so high that the draft was presented to the Afghan president without him receiving a copy. However, US envoy to Afghanistan and chief US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, has revealed some of its provisions. The two sides have agreed to reduce the US military presence in Afghanistan in return for a Taliban guarantee that it will not provide shelter for al-Qaeda and ISIL there, nor will it allow any attacks targeting the United States from areas under its control — which account for about half of Afghanistan today.
According to Khalilzad, once the agreement enters into force, the United States will begin to withdraw 5,000 troops over a period of 135 days; which means around 8,600 soldiers who train and support Afghan forces will stay behind. The draft agreement also provides for the Taliban to enter into domestic Afghan talks to determine the country's political future. The draft does not talk about a complete cease-fire, but about reducing violence in the first period, until the complete withdrawal of US troops and a comprehensive political formula for Afghanistan.
The Idea to Conduct Secret Talks
The idea of signing a peace deal with Taliban leaders came up during a meeting held by President Trump with his top national security advisers in late August 2019 to discuss the path presented by Khalilzad for US-Afghan negotiations. During the meeting, the initial agreement was approved, despite opposition from some of Trump's advisers. The agreement was finalized between the United States and the Taliban a few days later and both parties initialed the text.
After giving his approval, Trump raised the idea of ratifying the final agreement in Washington, while the Taliban delegation and the Afghan president are hosted at Camp David. Despite some objections, the idea was approved, to be implemented on 8 September 2019. The Afghan president was informed and approved under US pressure, despite his many reservations about the talks.
Trump's idea of secret talks at Camp David came about for two main reasons:
- Keeping an election promise
Since his 2016 candidacy, Trump has made no secret of his desire to withdraw US troops from what he called the "endless war" in Afghanistan. After 18 years of US military involvement in Afghanistan, it has become the longest-running US foreign war in history. But with Trump coming to the presidency in January 2017, he found himself under heavy pressure from the Department of Defense and his national security advisers to send more troops to Afghanistan if he wanted to win the war before withdrawing. There are currently about 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan, 5,000 more than when he became president. Almost three years into his presidency, victory is still far from the horizon Afghanistan. With the presidential election looming in late 2020, Trump feels compelled to keep his promise to withdraw.
- Gaining a Personal Foreign Policy Win
With President Trump losing the ability to pass much of his domestic politics after the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2018, his focus has been on foreign policy achievements. Trump has so far failed to achieve a single foreign policy promise that could be used to boost his electoral performance in 2020. Indeed, the past three years of his presidency have seen global turmoil and strained relations with allies. His rapprochement with Russia has failed to curb its defiance of the United States in various international arenas and his declaration of a trade war against China has not forced it to surrender. He held talks with North Korean President Kim Jong-un without persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal. The US withdrawal from the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and implementation of harsh economic sanctions along with the tightening of its oil exports have not pushed Tehran into submission.
These factors have dented the reputation that Trump, who presents himself as the “great dealmaker”, tries to project. He is now desperately looking for any kind of agreement, with Afghanistan seemingly his best chance. The US delegation and the Taliban delegation initialed a draft agreement "in principle" between them, but Trump, who is looking to achieve what no president has before, insisted on demonstrating himself as the dealmaker in the Camp David talks. When Khalilzad presented the matter to the Taliban delegation in Doha, the latter agreed, but with conditions, which led to the failure of all procedures later.
Reasons behind the Failure of the Secret Talks
Despite Trump's argument that he had cancelled negotiations with the Taliban on the eve of the Camp David meeting arranged to announce a peace deal in Afghanistan in response to the killing of a US soldier, all indications are that the death has nothing to do with the decision to halt negotiations. On the same day, Khalilzad and General Austin Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, were on their way to Doha to finalize the technical annexes to the main text of the agreement, with no mention of cancelling the secret talks at Camp David. The Afghan president did not announce the cancellation of his travel to Washington until the day after the attack. In Afghanistan, 15 US soldiers have been killed in Taliban attacks in 2019, 9 of them since June 2019 alone, without effecting the ongoing negotiations. In fact, there are several reasons that led to the US President's decision to halt negotiations with the Taliban, the most important of which are:
- Taliban Conditions
The Taliban delegation insisted that its travel to Washington is contingent on the announcement of the agreement first, which Trump did not want to do as it would render his role celebratory. The Taliban delegation insisted that it would not negotiate directly with the Afghan government, as an American puppet, the legitimacy of which is not recognized by the Taliban and any negotiation would be subject to an agreement first with the United States. The Taliban also demanded the release of all its members from Afghan prisons. While the Afghan government announced the Taliban's acceptance of a ceasefire, the Taliban, who want to continue negotiations under fire, rejected it.
- President Ashraf Ghani's Insistence on Presidential Elections
Although the United States is skeptical about the feasibility of holding the Afghan presidential elections on schedule on September 28, 2019, and fears that it will fuel ethnic and sectarian division in Afghanistan, affecting the prospect of a final agreement, the Afghan President insists that they are a constitutional entitlement. The majority of opinion polls indicate that he will easily win the elections if held on time. The Taliban, in turn, reject the elections and insist they will not recognize their legitimacy. President Ghani makes no secret of his opposition to any agreement between the Taliban and the United States. His government relies on the protection of 20,000 NATO troops, including US troops, against the Taliban. If they withdraw, government forces may not be able to withstand them.
- Internal Disputes with the Trump Administration
Though Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Khalilzad have backed the idea of secret talks at Camp David on the grounds that it will enable Trump to begin delivering on his promise to withdraw troops and secure a foreign policy win, the Vice President Mike Pence and Bolton have opposed them. Pence and others have argued that the Taliban's visit to Washington is inappropriate as it coincides with the anniversary of 9/11 and sends the wrong message to US forces who have lost 2400 soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Bolton also warned that the Taliban could not be trusted, and that the president could withdraw 5,000 US troops without an agreement. There was also concern among other officials about the implications of the negotiations collapsing under the supervision of Trump for his reputation as president, especially since the gap between the Taliban and Afghan government delegations is too wide and difficult to bridge. Some of the president's advisers have even warned that Trump may be making the same mistake as his predecessor, Barack Obama, when he prematurely pulled US troops out of Iraq in 2011, leading to the rise of ISIL.
Despite President Trump's declaration that the negotiations with the Taliban are over, Pompeo has left the door open for a possible resumption. Khalilzad is likely to remain in office, and his meetings with the Taliban delegation in Doha in September remain unchanged. Bolton's dismissal could be a catalyst for future negotiations as well, especially given that he was a staunch opponent. The Taliban's position, urging Trump to return to the negotiating table, may tempt the latter to back down, especially since he has no real alternatives to negotiate with the movement. He desperately desires a foreign policy success before the next election, but one that does not leave a security and political vacuum in the Afghanistan, as his did predecessor did in Iraq. He needs to secure this in order for the Pentagon to support the agreement.
Trump, despite his announcement that negotiations with the Taliban had been cancelled, insisted that US forces will withdraw "in time." Trump is known for his unstable temperament his inclination towards suddenly changing his mind without logical premises. In 2018, Trump angrily canceled a summit between him and the North Korean leader, scheduled to be held in Singapore in May 2018, only to meet with him the following month at the same place and shower the leader with praise.
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