Did Trump Cave to the Taliban?

The disputed prisoner swap that is delaying peace talks was a last-minute American concession Mike Pompeo said wouldn’t happen.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement in the Qatari capital Doha on Feb. 29. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

In mid-February, as talks with the Taliban were nearing completion, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked a direct question by Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski: Would the new truce commit the Afghan government, which wasn’t party to the negotiations, to releasing Taliban prisoners? 

It would not, Pompeo responded during the back-and-forth at the Munich Security Conference. But in the end, the deal did. Not only that, but the Taliban managed to extract a commitment from the U.S. side—without consulting the Afghan government—to force Kabul to release “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for only 1,000 captives from the Afghan national forces. The disproportionate release was to have taken place by March 10, which was also supposed to be the start of the intra-Afghan peace talks that the American side insists are central to the agreement. 

Now that eleventh-hour U.S. concession threatens to blow up the peace talks, which are stalled. On Wednesday the Taliban rejected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer to release 1,500 prisoners ahead of talks, saying they wanted all 5,000 freed before negotiations could start.  

To some critics of the U.S.-Taliban deal, like Malinowski, the concession was emblematic of a deeply flawed agreement that could ultimately cede Afghanistan back to the Taliban after 18 years of immense American expense and bloodshed—a defeat that could be a model for anti-American insurgencies around the world.

“You could not go further in delegitimizing the Afghan government,” former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told Foreign Policy. “To agree on behalf of the government of Afghanistan for early prisoner release and not to consult with the government Is further derogation of their sovereignty. One thing you do not do is put 5,000 fighters back in the battle before you’ve even started a [peace] negotiation.”

Since the truce was signed Feb. 29, the Taliban have made clear they do not consider the war against Afghan national forces to be over, having launched dozens of fresh attacks on Afghans even as they avoid assaults on U.S. forces.

In a statement on March 10, a State Department spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, blamed the delay in peace talks on the confusion inside the Afghan government, with Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, conducting dual inaugurations this week after a disputed election, as well as on Taliban violence. But Ortagus did not mention the ongoing dispute over the prisoner swap.

“While preparations for intra-Afghan negotiations are underway, the Presidential electoral crisis in Afghanistan has delayed the naming of a national negotiating team,” Ortagus said. “President Ghani has told us he is consulting with Dr. Abdullah and other Afghan leaders and will announce an inclusive team in the coming few days. Other challenges remain.  The current high level of violence by the Taliban is unacceptable.  We acknowledge the Taliban have taken steps to stop attacks against the Coalition and in cities.  But they are killing too many Afghans in the countryside.  This must change.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the prisoner swap, but the concession was believed to be a last-minute offer made by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to the Taliban and their Pakistani allies, who were threatening to walk away and jeopardize U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal plans, according to a former senior regional official familiar with the talks.

“That does strike me as the most credible explanation,” Malinowski told Foreign Policy. “It doesn’t make sense that Pompeo would just lie to me. My impression is that he could just as easily have said, ‘I can’t answer that question because the deal is not finalized,’ but he went out of his way to say, ‘I assure you it’s not in there.’”

The Feb. 29 deal was followed by a phone call between Trump and Taliban political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, after which Trump called it a “good talk” and reportedly sought to put pressure on Ghani, who had refused initially to honor a prisoner release pact in which he had no part. Reuters reported earlier this week that Ghani agreed to release some Taliban prisoners in exchange for a U.S.  endorsement of his inauguration, which Khalilzad attended.

Even so, the U.S.-Taliban agreement still guarantees no role for the current elected government, referring vaguely to the “future political roadmap of Afghanistan” and calling only for a “new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government.”

Some critics of the deal, such as former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani, say it is fatally full of holes—including the central concession of the Taliban that they will not permit al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan. “All the Taliban are committing to is not allowing al Qaeda and other groups to have territory under their control. They can always say there is territory we do not control,” he said.

In a statement this week, Pompeo welcomed Ghani’s cooperation. “Conscious of the yearning of the Afghan people for peace, the United States is working to achieve an agreement by the two sides and will remain steadfast in the effort to drive all parties toward that goal,” he said.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh