Chance to reset the table in Afghanistan

Afghanis want peace, but they have also wondered why Trump was negotiating with killers.

Every president since Jimmy Carter has dreamed of signing a peace agreement at Camp David. That’s a forgivable vanity, even for our current narcissist-in-chief. But it nearly led President Trump to make an unwise deal on Afghanistan with a Taliban that continues to use terror as its chief weapon.

Trump’s closest Republican allies, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have been warning him for weeks that the Afghanistan pact was a bridge too far. Graham was uncharacteristically critical of Trump in two recent interviews with me, arguing that the agreement that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was negotiating with a still-unreconstructed Taliban would leave the U.S. homeland vulnerable to attack.

But Trump ordered Khalilzad to conclude the deal, and he added the surprise fillip of the Camp David signing. Perhaps the president is suffering from a case of Nobel Peace Prize-itis. (Didn’t Barack Obama get one of those?) In Trump’s negotiations with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and the Afghan Taliban (and his flirtation with Iran), he wants agreements - and he wants the personal photo opportunity, too.

Trump backed out of this self-aggrandizing spectacle before it was too late. The problem wasn’t simply that he would have been embracing Taliban leaders who have blood on their hands; that problem arises with most peace agreements between bitter combatants. No, the defect here was that the Taliban hasn’t demonstrated that they were committed to breaking with their terrorist roots.

I thought Trump said it pretty accurately in his Saturday night tweet scuttling the Camp David meeting after the Taliban had taken credit for a car bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 others. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? ... If they cannot agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks ... then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”

This shouldn’t have been a surprise to Trump. Khalilzad has been pushing the Taliban to stop such bombings and demonstrate that it was willing to work with the Afghan government to reduce violence. The Taliban negotiators refused; they evidently believed that such terror tactics were their leverage. The past few weeks, Afghan sources tell me, they’ve been holding what amounted to a victory party. Now those celebrations have been derailed. “We dodged a bullet here,” Graham told me in an interview Monday. He described the planned Camp David meeting as “too much, too soon,” and said Trump “made the right call” in canceling it.

Trump has an opportunity now to reset the table in Afghanistan without committing any more U.S. troops - by increasing the political pressure on a Taliban whose terror tactics have backfired. The elections scheduled for later this month should go forward, and President Ashraf Ghani (whose position has been enhanced by Trump’s newly stiffened spine) is likely to emerge with a stronger mandate. The Taliban will try to terrorize voters and disrupt the election, but that will only deepen their unpopularity with most Afghanis.

Afghanistan is a different country from the one the Taliban ruled until it was toppled by the American-led campaign that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It’s more urban, modern and connected than the hypertraditional, tribal society that came before. Afghanis want peace, but they have also wondered why Trump was negotiating with killers. The New York Times quoted a doctor who treated one of the victims of last week’s car bombing: “I’d like to ask Mr. Trump why he didn’t stop the peace talks after all those attacks when the Taliban killed so many civilians.”

A second way to enhance leverage against the Taliban is to strengthen U.S. ties with Pakistan, by negotiating a free-trade agreement and greater security cooperation. Pakistan’s duplicity - secretly supporting the Taliban even as it nominally endorsed American war against them - has been one of the root problems in the long Afghanistan war. It needs to be fixed.

There’s an opportunity now for a reset: The current Pakistani leadership - Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa - may be the best potential partners the United States has had in years. It’s time to test whether they can deliver. As Graham says, closer U.S. ties with Pakistan “would rattle the Taliban.”

The opportunity for peace in Afghanistan is too precious to squander with a not fully baked, premature agreement. Just in time, Trump sent Khalilzad back to negotiate a better one. That spares Trump a Camp David embarrassment, but more important, it opens the way for a better peace pact that might really curb terrorism.

David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 12, 2019, on page 4.




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