Ending a long, drawn-out war turns out to be much more difficult than starting one, as President Donald Trump demonstrated this past weekend when he called off secret peace talks with Afghan government and Taliban leaders.
All wars end sometime, though it may not seem that way after nearly two decades of the U.S. and its allies fighting in Afghanistan. It’s much easier if one side can declare victory and the other surrenders.
In this case, watching the decreasing Western troop strength and increasing political impatience among Americans as crucial national elections loom over there this month and back here next year, the Taliban may think it’s winning.
What’s really for the Taliban to gain if it agrees to U.S. withdrawal conditions — break with al-Qaida, work with the central government and agree to prohibit foreign terrorists there plotting attacks abroad, as it allowed for Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 crowd back in 2001 (even if such an agreement is written on cheap paper)?
Without a victory in sight, it does take presidential courage to initiate negotiations with longtime enemies who’ve killed thousands of our own. See Richard Nixon’s openings to North Vietnam and Communist China.
Trump’s administration has been talking with Taliban representatives for more than a year. At some point, the U.S. must include the Afghans’ central government, as was scheduled to begin secretly this week at Camp David.
Trump shocked political Washington by tweeting he’d canceled that meeting at the last hour because of a recent car bombing in Kabul that killed 12, including one American and one Romanian soldier.
That’s not likely the only reason. Taliban representatives have resisted talking with Kabul representatives before a separate U.S. agreement, and have still not disavowed al-Qaida.
A proactive break by Trump — he later pronounced peace talks “dead” — takes the PR steam out of walkouts by the other sides. And have you noticed the Taliban story snuffed any new coverage of the Sharpie squiggle on Trump’s Hurricane Dorian map?
One of the dealmaker’s commandments in any negotiation is a willingness to walk away at some point, or at least appear to. Trump’s done that in talks with China over trade, with North Korea over denuclearization, and reportedly with Iranian entreaties to negotiate on sanctions even before that country halts aid to overseas terrorists.
When Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger tried opening Vietnam peace talks with Hanoi in 1968, negotiations stalled in superficial symbolic arguments even over the shape of the meeting table.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Taliban of trying to gain leverage through last week’s attack.
“We’re looking for more than words on paper,” he said. “We’re looking for real delivered commitment, and the Taliban demonstrated either that they weren’t willing to or couldn’t live up to the commitment they needed to make to reduce violence there.”
Eventually if motivations match, the parties may agree to talk again. But the political pressure is on Trump, not terrorist groups that are willing to see as many jihadi lives and innocent victims perish as necessary to regain power.
The temptation is great, and so are the stakes. President Barack Obama wanted out of Iraq so badly the year before his reelection campaign that he left a power vacuum where ISIS sprouted and flourished, killing hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Syria.
The criticism – by Republicans no less – that Trump was breaking faith by allowing 9/11 enablers to visit Camp David so close to the 9/11 anniversary was mere showboating for media attention.
Presidents have long used the Maryland presidential retreat for secret peace conferences. After such a ten-day stay 41 years ago next week during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Egyptian and Israeli leaders signed the historic Camp David Accords that lead to peace between those two frequent wartime adversaries.
If Trump could run next year as the man who delivered his 2016 promises to crush the ISIS caliphate, create a prosperous economy with millions of new jobs, especially among minorities, and end active involvement in the nation’s longest war, that would make a compelling campaign narrative to help drown out his less positive distractions.
Former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, was asked the other day about Trump’s bid to end the Afghan fighting, which the veteran Marine led for a while.
“The point is,” said Mattis the military realist, “that you may want a war over. You may even declare a war over, but the enemy gets a vote — a fact brought home to me repeatedly over my 40 years of service.”