The United States and Taliban were possibly only days away from a peace deal when US President Donald Trump announced on Saturday that he had cancelled a meeting with leaders of the terrorist group. They were initially scheduled to visit Camp David, the presidential retreat in America, in closely-guarded plans that were only revealed once Trump tweeted news of the cancellation. In what might appear like questionable timing, the rendezvous was planned for the week of the September 11 terrorist attack anniversary, which drew some criticism from the president’s critics.
More importantly is how the cancellation might affect the previously-planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. US forces have maintained a presence in the country since the 2001 terror attacks, making the war the longest in the nation’s history. Furthermore, the Trump administration is reportedly divided amongst itself with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton disagreeing about whether or not to continue the scheduled phased pullout. Bolton, a prominent war-hawk in Washington, argued against removing American troops, a stance which may come with little surprise given his proclivity for stoking prolonged military conflict in the region. Pompeo, on the other hand, said he hopes the situation does not come to the point of postponing the withdrawal, according to a Washington Post report.
Pompeo took the opportunity on Sunday to make his rounds on news networks, giving a total of five interviews Sunday in which he articulated his position on the current Afghanistan conflict. However, he admitted that for the near future, peace negotiations are off the table.
“I hope we get them started back. It will ultimately be up to the Taliban,” Pompeo stated during a Fox News interview. “They have got to demonstrate that they are prepared to do the things that we asked them to do in the course of those negotiations.”
Reaching the point of bringing the Taliban to the negotiation room was an accomplishment in and of itself. Doing so required nearly a full year of diplomacy as both sides ironed out a framework from which an amicable arrangement could be found. Both sides met in Doha, Qatar a week ago in what was at the time a summit that promised an end to the nearly 20-year-long war. After the meeting, a peace deal was reportedly expected within a week, which would have likely been the case were it not for the Taliban attack on Kabul.
On the eve of those discussions, the Taliban laid siege to Kunduz, a city located along a critical highway providing access to the northern provinces. The group’s integrity was called into question: Why should Washington cut a deal with a group that continues to strike even while negotiating for peace? Additionally, the terrorist group was due to begin peace talks with the Afghanistan government which presumably would have involved some structure for power-sharing. Those discussions were a condition of the preliminary agreement in Doha between Trump’s negotiators and Taliban leaders. Now, that avenue for peace might be closed as well.
The Kabul attack which killed an American soldier provided the definitive proof that Bolton needed to convince Trump to scrap the plans for a meeting this week. For some time, Bolton and Pompeo had been wrestling for control of Trump’s puppet strings, but until Sunday, Pompeo’s diplomatic approach appeared to have been winning. It had helped him that Trump often views himself as the “best dealmaker,” in his own words, and that he consistently believes only he can negotiate the “best deals.” It was an often-repeated phrase at campaign rallies once he announced his candidacy for president in 2015.
Since taking office, he has tried to make those deals with North Korea, Iran, China, Mexico, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom, even if that means tearing existing agreements apart, some of which were only solidified the year before his election. Pompeo recognised that this could be a string to pull to control Trump and he used it well to nearly bring about peace in between the US and Taliban. He also leveraged the fact that Trump promised to withdraw troops from the Middle East, and with an upcoming election, making good on campaign promises is all the more important.
However Bolton often felt excluded from the upper-level of White House decision-making and, behind-the-scenes, attacked Pompeo on this basis. Although Bolton reportedly did not reject the notion of a phased troop withdrawal, a deal with the Taliban was unquestionably unacceptable. Before Trump could give his final seal of approval on a peace accord, Bolton convinced him to cancel the plan. Without Pompeo in the room, he spoke with Trump, the chief negotiator of the deal, and the White House chief of staff in a final and ultimately successful bid to put the brakes on the deal.
The Taliban responded by threatening that the abrupt cancellation of peace talks would only lead to more American casualties.
“Its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman.
Pompeo highlighted the continued American-led mission in Afghanistan which over the past 10 days have killed over 1,000 Taliban fighters.
“And while this is not a war of attrition, I want the American people to know that President Trump is taking it to the Taliban to make sure that we protect America’s interests,” he said.
Through Twitter, Trump made clear that he attacking American soldiers to create leverage is a poor choice of strategy for the Taliban.
“They were coming to the United States. Unfortunately, to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people,” Trump tweeted. “What kind of people would kill so many people to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?”
With a peace deal that once was so close it practically only needed signatures now so far out-of-sight, the war in Afghanistan will seemingly continue for the near future, especially with Bolton whispering in Trump’s ear.