Trump’s National Security Team Splinters Over Taliban Meeting

Bolton’s pushback and Pentagon concerns over a potential deal with the Afghan insurgents helped convince the U.S. president to cancel the contentious summit.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton listen to U.S. President Donald Trump speak at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton listen to U.S. President Donald Trump speak at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 2018. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Update: Hours after this story was published, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that John Bolton had resigned. Read our latest coverage here

The collapse of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans for a potentially historic summit at Camp David with Taliban leadership and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reveals new fractures in his foreign-policy team as a lasting peace deal for the war-torn country appears ever more elusive. 

Trump’s impromptu plan to invite leaders of the Afghan insurgent group to the presidential retreat at the same time as the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks set off heated deliberations last week between the members of his national security team, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supporting the move and National Security Advisor John Bolton arguing against it.

The internal discussions leading up to the president’s last-minute decision to scrap the meeting this weekend shed light on the evolving dynamic among the members of Trump’s national security team since Defense Secretary Mark Esper was confirmed to the top Pentagon job in July. They also reflect significant hurdles ahead for Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, even as an impatient president looks to make good on his campaign promise to bring troops home from America’s forever wars before the 2020 presidential election. 

In discussions last week, Trump’s national security apparatus was divided, current and former officials say. The Pentagon in particular has long been skeptical the negotiations will ever lead to a deal the insurgent group will uphold, said officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations. 

“If you really want peace, then stop the attacks,” said one defense official. “It’s important that we don’t trust the Taliban. They should earn that trust.”

Bolton and defense officials argued that inviting “a designated terrorist organization” to Camp David would “set a terrible precedent,” said one senior administration official. 

But Pompeo, eager to clinch a deal that would pave the way for thousands of U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from the 18-year conflict, pushed for the meeting. He defended the president’s invitation on all five major Sunday talk shows, telling ABC News: “If you’re going to negotiate peace, you often have to deal with some pretty bad actors.” 

The disagreements reflect the growing rift between Pompeo and Bolton, who have soured on one another and rarely speak outside of formal meetings anymore, according to CNN

The White House declined to comment, and the State Department did not respond to request for comment. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman referred questions on specifics of the Afghan peace negotiations to the State Department. 

“We would like to see the Taliban and others come together to find a peaceful solution,” Hoffman said. “The only peaceful end to the conflict in Afghanistan is going to be a political solution.” 

Despite the disagreement, preparations for the Camp David meeting continued until Thursday, when a Taliban car bomb exploded near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The attack, one of many the Taliban have claimed in recent days, killed a U.S. soldier, a Romanian service member, and 10 civilians.

Coming amid a period of intense fighting during which the Taliban have carried out daily deadly attacks, the Kabul bombing was the final straw for the president, the senior administration official said. That, on top of opposition from Bolton and defense officials, “pushed it over the top.” 

On Saturday, Trump announced via Twitter that he had canceled the previously undisclosed summit, which was to have taken place Sunday at Camp David in Maryland, and called off peace negotiations altogether in response to the attack. 

Trump is desperate to secure a peace agreement with the Taliban, in part to salvage his reputation as a dealmaker and to fulfill his pledge to bring home U.S. troops. But his deputies have clashed with one another over the correct approach—a cacophony the president seems to relish. 

“The president is the decider-in-chief,” said James Carafano, a foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who consults with the White House. “The fact that his advisors come down differently doesn’t really bother him. I think he probably prefers it.” 

But those divisions are also sowing chaos in a delicate diplomatic initiative. Khalilzad, the president’s envoy to Afghanistan, has engaged in months of grueling negotiations with the Taliban and has sought to balance the Afghan government’s growing concerns and those of administration opponents to the talks—namely Bolton. 

“Clearly, there’s a divide within the administration, with Pompeo and Khalilzad on one side … and Bolton on the other,” said James Dobbins, a former longtime diplomat who served as President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014. “But that can be overcome simply by the president deciding to overcome it and … restarting talks,” he said.

Trump’s sudden squelching of the peace talks are part of the president’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy, including on Iran and North Korea, where senior diplomats can find months of careful, calibrated diplomacy suddenly derailed with a single tweet.

“In the various negotiations that have unfolded from the Trump administration, we’ve seen a number of these very abrupt announcements that completely change the course of negotiations,” said Alyssa Ayres, a former diplomat and expert on South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ayres said it was important to leave open the prospect for future talks with the Taliban, but she cast doubt on whether the president’s negotiating tactics will be effective. “We’ve seen no slam dunks through this technique.”

The Taliban issued a coolly worded statement after Trump suspended the talks, saying that the decision would cost more American lives. 

“This will lead to more losses to the U.S.,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. “Its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, Pompeo conceded on Fox News that talks are dead “for the time being” and said Khalilzad had been recalled to Washington. However, he left the door open to further negotiations. 

“I hope we get them started back. It will ultimately be up to the Taliban,” Pompeo said. “They have got to demonstrate that they are prepared to do the things that we asked them to do in the course of those negotiations.”

The talks would have taken place just days before the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, launched by al Qaeda from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer