Afghan former Taliban fighters are photographed holding weapons before they hand them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on Feb. 8, 2015.
Photo by Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty

How and why Trump’s talks with the Taliban unraveled

Before launching his presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump categorically condemned the idea of “negotiating with terrorists.” In 2012, with U.S. military leaders directly engaged in talks with the Taliban in the hopes of ending the war in Afghanistan, the New York Republican was disgusted with Barack Obama for “negotiating with our sworn enemy the Taliban – who facilitated 9/11.”

After taking office, Trump and his team, not surprisingly, negotiated with the Taliban, though the American president’s posture didn’t exactly help advance the diplomatic goals. Politico reported a month ago that the Republican’s public statements about his eagerness to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan “have weakened the hand of his negotiators by making it clear just how desperately the president wants a deal.”

The talks nevertheless proceeded, and appeared close to some kind of resolution, right up until Saturday night, when the world learned of some unexpected news by way of Trump’s Twitter feed.

President Donald Trump said Saturday that he was calling off “peace negotiations” with Taliban leadership after a U.S. service member was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Trump tweeted that he was scheduled to hold a secret meeting at Camp David Sunday with Taliban leadership and, separately, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The United States has been working on a deal with the group that harbored 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden to pull troops out of Afghanistan and end the nation’s longest war.

The Twitter thread, on its face, was a little strange. The American president said he’d arranged for a secret trip, bringing Afghanistan’s president and Taliban leaders to Camp David. According to Trump, however, a recent Taliban attack, which left an American servicemember dead, derailed the process. He added that he was amazed that the Taliban wouldn’t “agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks.”

There was no shortage of questions. Why was Trump negotiating with the Taliban after denouncing negotiations with the Taliban? Why would Trump bring Taliban leaders to Camp David? Why would Trump bring Taliban leaders to American soil the same week as the anniversary of 9/11?

If deadly Taliban attacks on American servicemen and women were a deal-breaker for Trump, why did his administration keep the talks going during previous Taliban murders? If Trump expected a cease-fire during the diplomatic efforts, why did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear on multiple Sunday shows yesterday, assuring the public that “in the last ten days,” U.S. forces have killed “over 1,000 Taliban” troops?

Additional reporting following the tweets brought relevant details into sharper focus.

The New York Times had a fascinating report overnight, the details of which haven’t been independently confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, noting that Trump, driven by a “penchant for dramatic spectacle,” personally came up with the idea of inviting Ghani and Taliban leaders to Camp David.

In a familiar dynamic, the White House’s plan “was put together on the spur of the moment and then canceled on the spur of the moment.” True to form for Team Trump, there was no real due diligence, and the “usual National Security Council process was dispensed with.”

What could possibly go wrong? Everything.

U.S. and Taliban negotiators had reportedly come to terms on a broad agreement: American troops would withdraw and the Taliban would provide counterterrorism assurances. Afghanistan’s government was excluded from the process.

Butt the American president apparently wasn’t quite satisfied with the arrangement.

When [U.S. State Department negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad] left Doha after the last round of talks concluded on Sept. 1, two days after the Situation Room meeting, he and his Taliban counterparts had finalized the text of the agreement, according to people involved. Leaders of both teams initialed their copies and handed them to their Qatari hosts.

Before the end of the meeting, Mr. Khalilzad brought up the idea of a Taliban trip to Washington. Taliban leaders said they accepted the idea – as long as the visit came after the deal was announced.

That would become a fundamental dividing point contributing to the collapse of the talks. Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal; after staying out of the details of what has been a delicate effort in a complicated region, Mr. Trump wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be.

If the Times’ reporting is correct, the process was derailed in part by Trump wanting to play president. He, the mighty president, would negotiate a bigger, better deal, which he would then take credit for.

It was a great plan, right up until it wasn’t.

Postscript: NBC News had a related report on this that’s worth your time, including a look at the internal divisions within the president’s team, with Vice President Mike Pence siding with White House National Security Adviser John Bolton against bringing the Taliban to Camp David.