President Donald Trump’s efforts to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan keep hitting a major roadblock: his own proclamations that he wants to get out.
Trump has repeatedly made it known he wants to remove all U.S. troops from the 18-year-old Afghan conflict, a topic he returned to Friday afternoon as his advisers briefed him on the status of peace talks with the Taliban.
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But his public statements and leaks of his closed-door demands have weakened the hand of his negotiators by making it clear just how desperately the president wants a deal, according to multiple current and former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the deliberations.
His top negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, is preparing for the ninth round of talks with the Taliban, seeking to reach a settlement that would allow the 13,000 U.S. troops still deployed to the country to come home.
Trump’s “known impatience and desire to get out have effectively forced Khalilzad to negotiate with one hand behind his back and given the Taliban an incentive to delay and harden their demands to see if they can get what they want for free,” said Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel and Afghanistan veteran who has interacted unofficially with Taliban representatives.
For example, just weeks after Trump named Khalilzad as his top envoy to the talks in December, Trump blindsided his advisers with instructions to pull half of the American troops out immediately — an order he was then talked out of giving.
“You appoint someone to be your primary negotiator who’s empowered to carry out these meetings, and then six weeks later you tell everyone you’re handing your adversary half of what they want for nothing?” asked a former defense official who was working on Afghanistan issues at the time.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse. It was severely damaging,” agreed a current military official with recent experience in Kabul. “We’ve probably gone double the rounds [of negotiations] because the Taliban were like, ‘Hey, you’re leaving anyway. Why should we negotiate?’”
The two officials, and six others interviewed for this story, spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations over the peace process or troop drawdown plans.
Khalilzad briefed Trump on Friday on the progress of the negotiations. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the meeting, which took place at Trump’s golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., according to news reports. The White House has not said what was decided during the meeting, if anything.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the closed-door meeting.
Trump’s New Jersey retreat is the same venue where, two years ago, his national security team persuaded him to back additional troops and air strikes in Afghanistan in the hopes of forcing the Taliban to negotiate.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said in an August 2017 speech announcing that move.
The dilemma demonstrates the longstanding tension between Trump and the national security establishment over Afghanistan.
For more than two years the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul has waited anxiously for the presidential tweet, pronouncement or order pulling the rug out from under the 2017 strategy — the stated aim of which is to apply enough military pressure to the Taliban to bring them to, and keep them at, the negotiating table.
“You know there’s a shot clock, but you don’t know how much time is on it,” said one of the officials with recent experience in Kabul. “I hadn’t felt the politics before like I have this time.”
The biggest scare came last December when Trump ordered a pullout of troops from Syria, prompting the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Trump also declared that he wanted half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan withdrawn.
“The president said, ‘Let’s do this,’ and nobody was ready for that,” a former defense official recalled regarding the Afghanistan directive. “That caused quite a bit of consternation. The State Department was looking to [the Pentagon] like, ‘What is this drawdown,’ and we were like, ‘Uhhh?’”
In the meantime, Trump has mused publicly about the utility of staying in Afghanistan. “Why are we there and we’re 6,000 miles away?” he asked during a televised Cabinet meeting in early January.
The furor in Congress over Syria and Mattis’ resignation, along with personal appeals to Trump by Senate leaders, worked to persuade the president to back off, according to a former defense official. “Lindsey Graham was key, and Mitch McConnell played a pretty significant role in saying, ‘Hey, this is not the way to do this,’” the former official said.
In a public statement at the time, Graham warned of an abrupt pullout “paving the way toward a second 9/11.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford also advised Trump that troop cuts should only happen in concert with negotiations, said another former defense official.
“It was very clear to us that the president wanted to move forward with this, but the best military advice was, ‘the strategy is working, we’re starting to talk, so any troop reduction should be linked to progress the special envoy makes as he talks to the Taliban,’” the former official said.
After the winter scare, the field commander in Kabul, Gen. Austin Miller, instructed a “tiny group” of officers at his headquarters to begin planning for a drawdown in case an order did arrive, one of the current officials said. “The group was kept small and compartmentalized because you don’t want to spook your allies, including the Afghans.”
That planning was eventually tied to Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
Miller presented various drawdown options to the special envoy, including a more drastic cut under which only a small counterterrorism force would remain, the same official said. The military and the negotiating team eventually agreed that the first “tranche” of reductions should cut the force to between 8,600 and 9,000. That’s down from 13,000 troops the official said are currently in the country — a smaller number than the Pentagon’s official tally of 14,000 because Miller has relocated sent some headquarters troops home or to a U.S. base in Qatar.
Already military preparations are underway for that initial withdrawal of about 4,000 to 4,500 troops should the Taliban agree to a ceasefire, a renunciation of the al-Qaida terrorist network that has long operated in territory under its control, and direct talks with the Afghan government.
Pulling those troops out would take about four months, according to the official. Afterward, at the new troop level of 8,600 to 9,000, U.S. special operations forces would continue their missions alongside elite Afghan troops, but U.S. advisers would depart from some large Afghan military commands and close some bases they had reopened.
But during the negotiations the Taliban has had one overarching demand: the departure of all U.S. troops from their country — the same thing Trump has made clear he wants since he ran for president.
Trump’s public and private broadcasting of his desire to get out of the country are dragging the negotiations out, the current and former military officials caution, undermining the prospects of the drawdown the president wants.
How long it stretches on — and whether the negotiations bear fruit — may come down, in part, to how seriously the Taliban take Trump’s desire to leave.
“Why would the Taliban give up anything in exchange for something the president has already said he wants to do?” said Tom Joscelyn, an Afghanistan expert at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The truth is, he wants out by the 2020 election.”
“The Taliban are reading these things and saying, ‘Let’s see if we can get this drawdown timeline at least cost,’” added Kolenda, the retired Army officer who has taken part in back-channel talks with Taliban representatives. “It’s easy enough to get to a deal if all you want is to get out. But the danger is the Taliban will play for time while the drawdown goes on. They can delay, prevaricate, while our troops are dwindling, and then just fire up the military campaign again.”