IT’S NOT at all clear what motivated President Trump’s abrupt decision to scrap a proposed meeting with Afghan government and Taliban leaders at Camp David last weekend, and to put a nearly completed U.S. deal with the insurgents on hold. Mr. Trump attributed it to a car bombing in Kabul that killed a U.S. service member last Thursday. Other sources said he was miffed that the Taliban would not go along with his plan to create a dramatic diplomatic scene at Camp David in which he would play the role of closer.
Whatever the cause, Mr. Trump’s decision avoided an unseemly spectacle — the killers of thousands of Americans hosted at the presidential retreat — and offered at least temporary relief to the many Afghans and Americans who believed he was rushing into a bad bargain. From what we know of it, Mr. Trump’s deal would risk throwing away the costly gains of 18 years of U.S. commitment to Afghanistan — all so Mr. Trump could claim to have delivered on a promise to bring American troops home.
To be sure, not all the details of the accord brokered by State Department envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with Taliban leaders have been disclosed. What is known is that the United States was to withdraw 5,400 of its 14,000 troops over 135 days, while the Taliban was to publicly break with al-Qaeda and pledge not to allow Afghan territory to be used as a base for attacks on the United States. The Trump administration also reportedly committed to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of next year, while the Taliban agreed to open negotiations with a group of Afghans about a peace settlement.
The initial U.S. withdrawal, which would return the U.S. force level to where it was when Mr. Trump took office, could be justified as a way of jump-starting a peace process. But Mr. Khalilzad failed to obtain a Taliban commitment to a cease-fire — only a reduction of violence in certain areas. Nor did the Taliban explicitly agree to negotiate with the elected Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani. While U.S. officials said the troop withdrawals would be conditions-based, they haven’t said they would be linked to the conclusion of a peace deal. Nor has the Taliban yet agreed to allow a residual U.S. force that could conduct counter-terrorism operations, including against the thousands of Islamic State fighters operating in Afghanistan.
While most Americans wish to end the Afghan mission, there is no reason to accept such weak terms from a movement whose commitment to theocratic dictatorship and disregard for women’s rights appears undiminished. Sixteen Americans have now been killed in combat in Afghanistan this year, and 54 since 2014; the cost of the war, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put at $30 billion this year, is less than 5 percent of the Pentagon budget. The long-term cost of surrendering Afghanistan to the Taliban would likely be far higher, especially as there is no guarantee it would deliver on the promise to control terrorist groups.
Sheer vanity may have dictated Mr. Trump’s suspension of this flawed diplomacy. Caprice could cause him to revive it, or to withdraw U.S. troops without it. Afghans can only hope that he chooses to set aside his personal political agenda and hold out for a better deal.