“A potent recipe for instability”: a foreign policy expert on Trump’s Taliban talks

“What Trump and his lead negotiator have done is to embolden and empower the Taliban.”

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On Saturday, President Trump suddenly dropped an astonishing series of tweets. “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday,” he wrote. “They were coming to the United States tonight.”

“Unfortunately,” the president continued, “in order to build false leverage, they admitted to [...] an attack on Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations.”

Exactly what transpired is still unclear – Trump, as the US legal analyst Luppe B Luppen pointed out on Twitter, is hardly the most reliable narrator. But the tweets still caused outrage among the US national security community.

“It is hard to overstate the shock and anger many of us who worked in the American national security structure feel,” Brett Bruen, the president of consulting firm Global Situation Room and former US diplomat who served as director of global engagement in president Obama’s White House, tells me. 

“The announcement that the Taliban had been invited not just to the United States, but to a famed presidential retreat is appalling. They have shown no willingness, let alone any work towards reforming their brutal tactics. Indeed, just in the last few weeks they have carried out large-scale attacks and continued to propagate the false notion that Americans are to blame for the attacks of September 11th.

“I was an intern at the United Nations in New York during the summer of 2001,” Bruen continues. “Every Wednesday, along with my fellow interns, we would go to Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center. Watching those towers fall just weeks after returning to school is what drove me into the diplomatic service. It was borne of a belief that we needed to put the world back together.” 

“But this is not how you reconcile and rebuild,” he adds. “What Trump and his lead negotiator have done is to embolden and empower the Taliban. They have given them a pass on the hard issues, like negotiating with the Afghan government. Instead the deal would only call for those talks to start. Women’s rights are nowhere to be found in the terms. [Nor] respect for fundamental international norms.”

Bruen believes that politics is driving Trump’s behaviour, saying that the president wants to rush out of Afghanistan because “he desperately needs a talking point for his re-election campaign”. 

“Let’s remember,” Bruen says, “he came into office as the guy who was supposedly an expert on the Art of the Deal. He has proven more adept at the Art of Driving into Dead Ends. After three summits we have made no progress with North Korea – but they have gotten a huge legitimacy boost. They are now in a much stronger position to hold out for a deal that will be far more favorable to Pyongyang.”

“There appears to be no one on Trump’s national security team who can explain to the president, ‘With all due respect, this ain’t how it’s done, Sir.’ This leads us into dangerous waters. Our enemies can now bask in the glow of the American presidency, as our allies feel bruised and battered.” 

It is, Bruen says, “a potent recipe for increased instability and international conflict.”

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.