Prospects of the US-Afghan Negotiations

US president Donald Trump announced on September 7, 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 cancelled. 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 presumably 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 the September 11, 2001 attacks, 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 Advisor, John Bolton, on 10 September was directly linked to his opposition to negotiations with the Taliban.1

Outline of the Draft Agreement

The Trump administration has been negotiating with the Taliban for nearly a year in the Qatari capital, Doha. These negotiations resulted in early September 2019 in a preliminary draft agreement that was kept top secret. The level of discretion was so high that the draft was presented orally to the Afghan president without him receiving a hard copy. However, US envoy to Afghanistan and chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, has revealed some of its provisions. The two sides have agreed to reduce US military presence in Afghanistan in return for a Taliban guarantee that it will not provide shelter for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State 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 that around 8,600 soldiers who train and support Afghan forces will stay behind. The draft agreement also provides for the Taliban to enter into inter-party Afghan talks to determine the country’s political future. The draft does not mention a complete cease-fire, but talks about reducing violence in the first period, until the complete withdrawal of US troops is finished and a comprehensive political formula for Afghanistan is finalized.2

The Idea of 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 advisors 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 advisors. The agreement was finalized between the United States and the Taliban a few days later and both parties initialed the text.3

After giving his approval, Trump proposed 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 of the matter and approved it 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:

  1. 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.4 After 18 years of US military involvement in the country, 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 advisors to send more troops to Afghanistan if he wanted to win the war before withdrawing.5 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 remains distant.6 With the presidential election looming in late 2020, Trump feels compelled to keep his promise to withdraw.

  1. Scoring a Personal Foreign Policy Win

With President Trump losing the ability to pass much of his domestic political agenda 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, his years in the 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 the latter 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, implementation of harsh economic sanctions against it, and limiting 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.7 He is now desperately looking for any kind of agreement, with Afghanistan seemingly his best chance. The US and Taliban delegations 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 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, nine of whom since June 2019 alone, without affecting 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:

  1. Taliban Conditions

The Taliban delegation insisted that its travel to Washington was contingent on the announcement of the agreement first, which Trump did not want to do as it would render his role ceremonial. The Taliban delegation insisted that it would not negotiate directly with the Afghan government, which it considers to be an illegitimate American puppet and with which 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, a demand the Afghan government conditioned on the movement’s acceptance of a ceasefire. The Taliban, however, rejected the government’s condition, preferring to continue negotiations as the war grinds on.

  1. President Ashraf Ghani’s Insistence on Presidential Elections

The United States is skeptical about the feasibility of holding the Afghan presidential elections on schedule on September 28, 2019 for fear that they will fuel ethnic and sectarian divisions in the country, which in turn will affect the prospect of a final agreement. But the Afghan President insists on holding them, considering them a constitutional requirement.8 The majority of opinion polls indicate that he will easily win the elections if they are held on time. The Taliban, in turn, reject the elections and refuse to 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 soldiers, against the Taliban. If foreign forces withdraw, government troops may not be able to withstand the movement’s onslaught.

  1. Internal Disputes within the Trump Administration

While Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Khalilzad backed the idea of secret talks at Camp David––on the grounds that they will enable the president  to deliver on his withdrawal promise which will give him a foreign policy win––Vice President Mike Pence and Bolton opposed it. 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 2,400 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.9 There was also concern among other officials about the impact of the collapse of negotiations under Trump’s supervision on the American presidency, especially since the gap between the Taliban and Afghan government positions was too wide and difficult to bridge. Some of the president’s advisors 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 the Islamic State.

Conclusion

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 still in his position and his schedule of meetings with the Taliban delegation in Doha in September remains 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 negotiations 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 Afghanistan, as his 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 have been cancelled, insisted that US forces will withdraw “at an appropriate time.” Trump is known for his unstable temperament and his inclination to suddenly change his mind without logical reasoning.10 In May 2018, he angrily canceled a summit meeting with the North Korean leader, scheduled to be held in Singapore a month later, only to change his mind and meet with him at the same place and shower Kim with praise.

An earlier version of this paper was published on September 17, 2019 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.

1 Kristen Welker et al., “Secret Taliban Peace Talks at Camp David Floated, Scrapped within a Week, U.S. Officials Say,” NBC News, 9/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: https://nbcnews.to/2mgSZj7
2 Cara Anna, “AP Explains: How Trump Upended US-Taliban Peace Talks,” Associated Press News, 9/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: http://bit.ly/2kLKBrq
3 Peter Baker, Mujib Mashal & Michael Crowley, “How Trump’s Plan to Secretly Meet with the Taliban Came Together, and Fell Apart,” The New York Times, 8/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: https://nyti.ms/2kzw6XT
4 Deb Reichmann, “Trump Marks 9/11 Anniversary amid Frustration about ‘Endless War’ in Afghanistan,” Chicago Tribune, 11/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: http://bit.ly/2lSP0cx
5 David Welna, “Defense Secretary Mattis Sends more Troops to Afghanistan with Hopes to End War,” NPR, 14/3/2018, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: https://n.pr/2lTvLPV
6 Jessica Donati, “Taliban Urge U.S. to Resume Talks after Bolton’s Departure,” The Wall Street Journal, 12/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: https://on.wsj.com/2koBmgU
7 Stephen Collinson, “Why John Bolton Had to Leave and what to Expect Next,” CNN, 11/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: https://cnn.it/2lYjtpl
8 Phil Stewart & Jason Lange, “Trump Says he Canceled Peace talks with Taliban over Attack,” Reuters, 7/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: https://reut.rs/2kOip7g
9 Quint Forgey, “‘Mr. Tough Guy’: Trump Delivers vicious Takedown of Bolton,” Politico, 11/9/2019, accessed on 16/9/2019, at: https://politi.co/2kzxmKB
10 Donati.