It was rather like cancelling a new and glitzy fizzy drink ad campaign because somebody found that all the fizz leaked out before the bottle was ever opened. That was essentially what happened when President Donald Trump decided to suddenly turn around and call quits on the whole Taliban deal. It seemed that the decision to call the Taliban to Camp David — that holy sanctum of international leaders — was perhaps to have been a kind of triumphant call of an end to terrorism, on a day of commemoration of those who died in the worst terrorist attacks in US history.
To those decrying the irony or the total outrageousness of such a move, Trump’s aides could argue that Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the worst terrorist outfit dubbed the Haqqani network is said to have visited the White House and even got photo-op opportunities. The important thing, of course, is that he was an ally at that time and not one who was killing US servicemen.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories are rife. The dismissal — or resignation — of National Security Advisor John Bolton, seems to underline that hoary old cliché of Afghanistan being the graveyard of diplomats (and empires). But Trump called out his disagreement with Bolton on North Korea, rather than on Afghanistan, emphasising that Bolton did not get along with colleagues (read Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who was seen beaming on TV after the dismissal/resignation), and certainly there were strong differences on the upcoming meeting with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani.
Notably, before he left, Bolton does seem to have got his way with the Afghanistan issue, resulting in the cancellation. For those now saying ‘good riddance,’ it is as well to remember that Bolton was always grounded in reality, which was that some of the world’s dictators and thin-lipped khakis couldn’t be trusted. Time has proved him right on several counts.
The Taliban walked back on almost all of the ‘original’ offers that were reported to have been put up to a rather surprising duo. Remember that the first reach out to the Taliban was done through a former US diplomat Robin Raphael known to be extremely close to Islamabad, after consultation with Paolo Cotta Ramusino, Secretary-General of the Pugwash society, a body once truly looked up to as having facilitated US-Soviet talks for peace.
Pugwash’s expertise was in the nuclear field, not insurgency, but the group decided to hold its own rounds of talks with the Taliban. The next step was for Raphael, together with a respected Afghan war veteran Chris Kolenda meeting an unknown group of Taliban at Doha, in an effort clearly facilitated by Islamabad. It emerged that the Taliban were willing to accept not only a continuation of US troop presence, — and here’s the interesting part — accepted that even military training was possible after the formation of an inclusive government. They even seem to have shared fears that Afghanistan would turn into another Syria.
It was those that talks eventually led to the opening of formal US-Taliban talks with Alice Wells, from the State Department heading this effort. Eventually, in time, it appeared that all of this was just talk. The Taliban had no intention at all of doing any of that. It wanted the US out, and itself in, and it didn’t care how much of blood was spilt in the process. Most of all, it didn’t seem to be interested at all in elections. The only one who benefitted was Pakistan, who was back from the cold as a trusted ally, just after the tongue lashing that it received in the 2017 Strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia. In retrospect, it seems that the opening of a dialogue with the former diplomat was only meant to draw in the US into a dialogue. Nothing else was ever up for offer.
The question is what is going to happen next. As of now, Trump chose to put that cancellation down to the death of a US soldier in a suicide bomb attack just before the meeting. That doesn’t seem like him at all. After all, a lot of young US soldiers have died in recent months, as the Taliban ramped up attacks.
What seems likely is that Trump, having an extremely good nose for the way the media wind blows, decided that the time was not ripe for a deal, which had been savaged not only in the US media, but also criticised in a public letter by nine former ambassadors who warned that the Taliban had promised nothing at all, that undercutting the Afghan government was hardly good policy, and finally, that a civil war was likely, where international terrorists of all hues would carve out their respective areas of influence.
Worse, the media outed the fact that the five leaders who were to come to the US to sign the deal are all ex-Guantanamo detainees, with records of rights violations as long as your arm, and more importantly with close ties to the Al Qaeda. That’s really strange since about the only issue left in the original US demands was that the Taliban would deny safe haven to terrorists.
But it is unlikely that the effort to pull back US troops will die entirely. Sooner than later Trump will probably restart the process in an entirely different format. As Joseph H.Nye notes, the president has proven to be extraordinarily skilled not only in mastering modern media and defying conventional wisdom but also in learning the art of disruptive innovation.
There’s trouble ahead. He’s not only going to ask for more from ‘friends’ in the neighbourhood but also probably will get more nasty with those who crossed him. The bombings of Taliban positions have already begun, but that’s like bombing the rubble. The trouble is next door as anyone who knows the situation points out. Bolton would have quietly agreed.