Q&A

Trump’s Approach to Afghanistan ‘Confusing His Own Negotiators’

Veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker talks about the “catastrophic” plans for a Taliban summit and scant hopes for any enduring peace deal.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attends the Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha, Qatar, on July 8.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attends the Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha, Qatar, on July 8. Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly derailed months of tense negotiations with the Taliban aimed at ending the nearly two-decade-long fight in Afghanistan. The U.S. talks with the Taliban have drawn controversy because they excluded direct negotiations with the Afghan government, with which the Taliban refuses to negotiate.

Foreign Policy spoke to Ryan Crocker, a former veteran career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, on what the sudden about-face means for the peace process and what likely will come next for the war-torn country. The interview was conducted before Trump on Tuesday announced that he had fired National Security Advisor John Bolton, who had pushed against the Afghanistan talks. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Foreign Policy: What was your reaction to the news that the president called off peace talks with the Taliban, and the secret meeting at Camp David?

Ryan Crocker: It was a stunning moment. I really did react with mixed emotions. I was appalled at the very idea of Taliban leaders being received by the president at Camp David, shaking hands and dining well while they are in the process of continuing to murder Afghan security forces and civilians, and our own troops. At the same time, I was relieved that the president, at least for the moment, had not only called off that catastrophic meeting but also had put a halt to the negotiations. I don’t know how long that halt will last. Since the very beginning, I have been saying as loudly as I can that this is exactly the wrong way to go. We are selling out the Afghan government and the Afghan people, particularly women and children.

FP: What do you think the immediate impacts will be after this? Do you expect a new spate of violent attacks in Afghanistan after this?

RC: I would imagine that things will continue as they have: The Taliban taking every chance they can get to blow up someone. I don’t think anything so far would alter their battle plan, which is to inflict as much damage as they can on anyone they can reach. Military, civilians, Americans, Afghans, it doesn’t matter to them as long as they’re killing people all night. I don’t see how this would affect that, they’ll just carry on.

FP: How has the president’s announcement impacted U.S. credibility?

RC: It’s another example of erratic behavior of the president. It’s almost an oxymoron: He is consistently erratic. Anyone who watches this closely knows that. If that came as a surprise to the Taliban, maybe they’re dumber than I thought, which would be good for us. No one knows what he is going to do next, including him.

FP: But do you see Trump’s public cancellation as a calculated negotiating tactic? He’s applied a similar style to negotiations with North Korea, where he abruptly called off the last day of his last summit with Kim Jong Un. Could leaving the counterparts on the other side of the table wondering what might happen next be an effective way to negotiate?

RC: It could be an effective form of diplomacy and negotiation if it was a studied effort. But his is not. If it were just the people on the other side of the table who were confused and uncertain of what to do next, that can be an effective tactic. But in this case, it’s the people on both sides of the tableHe is confusing his own negotiators as much as he is confusing the other side, and that does not get you anywhere good.

I’ve been through a number of international negotiations. You have to know from the moment you sit down the first time where it is you’re going. What do you need to come out of this negotiation? And then you’ll use different approaches, but you never lose sight of where you’re going. And in this case it is extremely difficult, whether you’re working North Korea, Iran, or Afghanistan, to have any sense of, “Why are we at this table? What are we here to achieve?” And then, there’ll be another president’s tweet, and the American negotiators will not know where they’re going, as well as the other side.

FP: What should [Trump’s envoy for Afghan peace talks] Zalmay Khalilzad do from here? Should he maintain contacts with the Taliban negotiators? Should he wait to let the dust settle?

RC: I have not talked to him or anyone involved in negotiations, just to be clear. What I have seen is that, of course, he has been recalled to Washington. So pretty clearly, what he is going to be doing is sitting down with the administration and presumably figuring out after all of this where we are and where we go next. This would not be the time, to say the least, to try to reengage the Taliban. We don’t know what we’re doing, so there’s really nothing to say to them at this stage.

FP: Do you think that that Khalilzad can restart talks at some point in the near future?

RC: Again, my position is that these talks never should have been started on the basis that they were, the United States negotiating the future of Afghanistan with the mortal enemy of the Afghan government, and the Afghan government not included. I just cannot imagine a worse approach. I am at least slightly hopeful that given this particular blowup, there will be an opportunity for rational people in Washington to get a hold of this and say, “We cannot go down this road any further.”

To go this far in negotiations without a commitment for a firm cease-fire, it’s beyond irresponsible. It’s not as though the soldier who was killed in this last bombing was the first American casualty since these talks started. So to not have a cease-fire up front is just extremely bad negotiating tactics, and to not have the government of Afghanistan in the room effectively leading the negotiations, makes this just what it looks like, a surrender. And we’re not surrendering our schools, we’re surrendering the government of Afghanistan and the people that it is there to support and protect.

FP: Even if the Taliban refuses to directly speak with the Afghan government as they have, what is the alternative to peace talks? It has been 18 years since the United States first got involved in Afghanistan, and President Trump promised to finally extricate the United States from Afghanistan. Shouldn’t that be a core priority of this administration?

RC: Well, this is a president who says he doesn’t like losers. The narrative, “We’re tired in Afghanistan. We don’t want to be there anymore. Let’s just sit down, let’s get the best deal we can and we’ll be checking out.” It’s so reminiscent of what we did in Vietnam. So if that’s what the president wants to do, then he’ll do it. But no one should be kidding themselves. I mean, this is giving up. It’s saying, “We’re done. We’re going home.”

The irony is, we don’t need to do this. When I left Afghanistan in 2012, we had about 100,000 [coalition] troops in the country. Today, we’ve got about 14,000, yet the Taliban has not made appreciable gains, or gains that they can hold for more than a day or two in that period. That’s a quantifiable fact that is worth paying attention to. This notion that somehow the Taliban are winning and that we’ve got to give up and get out, nothing could be further from the truth. This is not Vietnam. We are not losing unless the president wants to persist in the direction he’s going, which is what a loser would do. 

FP: It’s interesting you bring up the Vietnam analogy, because I think a lot of people today draw the comparison between the two. So if the answer is not, We’re tired, let’s get the best deal we can, and leave,” then what is the alternative? Stationing thousands of troops there in perpetuity?

RC: Ironically, the president actually had this right two years ago when he said in August of 2017, that in Afghanistan we are not going to be looking at calendars anymore—we’re going to be looking at conditions. And that’s exactly what we should be doing. There’s nothing in perpetuity. We have roughly 14,000 troops there now because that is the number, the configuration commanders feel is necessary for the task at hand. You know, in three months that number may be 11,000. Who knows? I mean, the president did have this right, and now, of course, he’s veered away from that in a very unfortunate direction. No one wants to see our guys and gals in uniform getting killed or wounded out there, and I’ve seen enough of that to know how it feels.

Given the stakes we’re playing for out there, having somewhere around what we have there now indefinitely, I’d say that’s a reasonable insurance premium given what’s happened to us in Afghanistan before. And anyone who thinks the Taliban is done with al Qaeda better remember that they gave up the country. They gave up Afghanistan rather than give up al Qaeda, because that was the choice we gave them in 2001. “Hand over the leadership and we won’t come in.” They declined to do so. Do we really think that having stood with al Qaeda in the wilderness as all these years, that they’re going to boot them out now? Of course they’re not. 

FP: If you were advising the president or if you were in Khalilzad’s shoes right now, what conditions would you look for to restart peace talks?

RC: There would have to be two very simple ones. First, these talks will have to take place with the legitimate recognized government of Afghanistan. Second, the whole question of force levels is not going to be on the table for any discussion whatsoever until we have in place a firm and verifiable cease-fire. And if that is too much for the Taliban, fine, they are not winning. We can continue as we are, again, indefinitely. To go in with anything else really is signaling that we are ready to give away this.

FP: Do you believe that the Taliban leadership and negotiators have effective control over their rank and file to completely cease all attacks?

RC: That’s precisely why I think it is so important to have a firm and verifiable cease-fire in play. Let’s see if they have the will and the ability to control their fighters. We don’t know. And we certainly don’t want to find out after we’ve pulled our troops out. It would just make no sense.

FP: What are the ultimate prospects for any sort of lasting peace deal?

RC: If the president could simply pretend it’s 2017 all over again and restate what he said at the time, that’s the signal we need to send. The word around the neighborhood is hunker down, reorganize, rest, reequip, and then just start coming at the Americans. And over time [Americans] will get tired and they’ll go home, because that’s what they do. We have the chance to say, “It’s a different narrative this time guys, we’re not going, we’re sticking. Our vital national security interests are at stake here. We’ve seen the movie before. We’re not going to see it again. We can afford the cost. So if you think we’re going, think again.”

What we’ve got to do is to convince not just our allies, but our enemies, we are in this for the long haul, because this is vital to our interests, and let’s also say to our values. To pull out and let the government basically go down, because we didn’t make them a party to the negotiations, and to leave all of those Afghan females that we urge to step forward to the tender mercies of the Taliban. 

It’s not just our national security—it’s our values as Americans. And this president seems ready to throw both of them away.

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

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