President Donald Trump has managed to unite Democrats, Republicans, the Afghan government and the Taliban on one point: His idea to push for a secret Camp David negotiating session on how to end the Afghan war was a terrible idea, only made worse by his bizarre announcement on Twitter Saturday night that he had canceled it. The only person not employed by the president who had something remotely positive to say about him was Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and she had to tie herself in knots to do so. It was an outrage to bring the Taliban to Camp David, where the Bush administration deliberated its response to the 9/11 attacks, she tweeted, and so President Trump was to be congratulated for calling the meeting off. The fact that it was his idea in the first place must have exceeded the character limit for a tweet.
Eighteen years in, after 2,437 U.S. killed and more than 20,000 wounded, there is no debating the conclusion that our efforts to decisively defeat the Taliban and transform Afghanistan into a representative democracy where women’s and minorities’ rights are respected have not succeeded and never will. We do not begrudge President Trump’s desire to bring American troops home, just as we did not begrudge former President Barack Obama when he wanted the same thing. We don’t criticize the Trump administration for negotiating with the Taliban, just as we did not criticize the Obama administration for doing so. Our main hope now must be to assure that Afghanistan cannot again be used as a base for attacks on the United States or our allies, whether by the Taliban or some other group like al-Qaida, and that is going to require talking to our enemies.
But negotiating a deal on our own with the Taliban, as the Trump administration has been attempting to do, isn’t enough. Continued civil war between the Taliban and the Afghan government (which the Taliban does not recognize as legitimate) will only deepen the chaos and misery in that nation and create more fertile ground for terrorists. Whatever agreement we come to with the Taliban has to be the precursor for productive negotiations between the Taliban and the government, with the U.S. still engaged as part of the process — even if that means a U.S. troop presence in the country on a timetable that doesn’t align with President Trump’s re-election campaign.
President Trump’s belief that he could cosset Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban leaders in the Maryland mountains and personally broker a deal over a weekend was pure hubris, and it is likely to do lasting damage the prospects for ending the war.
He put Mr. Ghani in the impossible position of choosing between meeting with an enemy that does not recognize his authority and angering his country’s chief international protector and patron. He doubtless feels badly used.
And whatever progress has been made in coming to an accommodation with the Taliban was set back by President Trump’s decision to publicly pin the blame for the meeting’s collapse on the group. The attack last week that killed an American serviceman and 11 others was certainly bad timing, but it is no different from the violence that has continued on both sides throughout the duration of the peace talks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself noted on Sunday that 1,000 Taliban fighters had been killed in the last 10 days alone. If Mr. Trump wanted to hold off on finalizing a peace deal with the Taliban as a result of the Kabul car bombing, that would have been one thing. Publicly announcing it was another.
This is not a reality show to be played for ratings. If we are ever going to bring America’s longest war to a reasonable close, it will take patience, consistency and multilateral cooperation, not political motivation, infighting and cowboy diplomacy. Quite simply, it will take a different president.