The surprise announcement by Donald Trump that he had canceled the secret meeting he had scheduled at Camp David with the leaders of the Taliban and the Afghan government has led to a lot of speculation as to what the deal might have contained and the real reasons for the cancellation. No one really buys Trump’s reason that it was because of the bombing on Thursday that killed a US soldier, because there had been no agreement about a ceasefire and both sides had been continuing hostilities anyway.
According to NPR news this morning, leaders of the Taliban said that they had agreed to a deal and had signed off on it at Qatar, where the discussions were taking place. They viewed the Camp David meeting as purely ceremonial and were stunned by its last-minute cancellation. There had been some speculation that Trump had been unhappy with some aspects of the deal that his negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad had agreed to with the Taliban but it now appears that Trump was actually annoyed that any deal had been finalized at all and that the meeting in Camp David had been for the ceremonial signing of the agreement.
Taliban sources told The Daily Beast everything seemed to be going well and on schedule for an announced agreement until about 11 p.m. Saturday, which would have been about 4 p.m. at the Trump golf club where the president was staying in Sterling, Virginia.
Then came the Trump tweets, claiming the death of Sgt. Ortiz was the reason for calling off the agreement.
“We were stunned,” said one senior figure in the Taliban hierarchy. “It’s like being stuck in a roundabout [traffic circle] with many red and green lights and having no idea in what direction to move.”
The Taliban negotiators went into an urgent meeting in Qatar “to measure and assess the latest developments,” this source said. “Did Trump mean this as a joke or seriously? Or just a technique to pressure the Taliban at the last minute?”
But now it appears that Trump had wanted to be the person who closed the final deal and had been unhappy that the deal would be seen as having been arrived at without him playing a central role, and that was why he bailed. The Taliban are now warning of dire consequences because of his action.
It is clear that Trump has no idea how international relations work and how deals are made at that level. In such negotiations, the actual leaders of nations are usually involved at the beginning in setting out the broad parameters of the negotiations and then signing off on the final deal. In between, lower-level people negotiate the many complex details while reporting back to their principals regularly to make sure that they are staying within acceptable boundaries. Trump seems to think that international deals are like the much simpler business deals he is familiar with, where the two owners of small businesses meet and agree on the deal and shake hands on it and then go out and have a drink.
This would explain why all his summit meetings with North Korea, China, Russia, and the trade deals with Mexico and Canada and the G7 summits have been failures with no permanent agreements arrived at and sometimes not even the obligatory anodyne communiqué at the end. He thinks that just by meeting with the leaders of nations, he can arrive at some deal, but the leaders of the other countries know that that is not how things work. At the summit level, details are important, and Trump not only does not do details, he does not like other people doing them either. It looks like in this case, he feared that Khalilzad and not him may get the credit for working out the deal with the Taliban and he just could not stand it.
Trump is running out of time on Afghanistan. If history is any indication, governments whose survival depends upon the presence of foreign forces do not last long when that support is withdrawn. As we have seen before in Afghanistan when the Russians were there and in South Vietnam when the US was there, once the foreign troops were withdrawn, the governments collapsed quickly. It is quite likely that once the US withdraws its troops, the Taliban may overthrow the current Afghan government quickly, given that successive Afghan governments do not seem to have done the kinds of things that might have generated widespread support.
Afghan civilians are already dying in big numbers, not only despite the presence of U.S. forces — 2018 saw Afghan civilian deaths hit a record high — but because of them, too. How many Americans are aware of the fact that in the first six months of this year, the Afghan government and its U.S.-led international allies killed more civilians than the Taliban? Shouldn’t that shock us all?
As for the attempt to deny terrorists a safe haven, if 100,000 US troops couldn’t defeat the Taliban at the height of the Obama-ordered surge in 2011, why should we believe that the current deployment of 14,000 U.S. troops can achieve any kind of victory in 2019 or 2020?
Lest we forget, the Taliban right now controls “nearly half of Afghanistan.” There are at least 240 Al Qaeda fighters on the ground in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. Security Council.
Trump seems to feel that he needs to get out of Afghanistan soon because that would be the only major tangible campaign promise that he kept. But if that collapse happens too close to the election, then Trump will pay a price. His best hope is that it happens soon and, given the short political memories of the American public and the media, the Afghanistan fiasco would have disappeared from public consciousness by the time the 2020 election comes around.