The best thing to be said for the planned Camp David meeting with the Taliban is that it didn’t happen.
President Trump has a weakness for the grand gesture. Hosting the leadership of a vicious, terrorist insurgency that aided and abetted September 11 and is trying to kill Americans as we speak certainly would have been . . . memorable.
The invitation was part of the effort to bring to a conclusion negotiations that were close to a deal, although not one favorable to the interests of the United States.
The deal envisioned the U.S. reducing its current troop presence of roughly 15,000 down to zero about 16 months from now, at which point any commitments the Taliban had made would be worthless. We understand the frustration with a war that has lasted 18 years, but it would be foolish to end the “endless war,” or our part of it, with the Taliban once again in position to threaten Kabul and harbor international terrorists who mean us harm. We’ve had recent experience with a president following through on campaign pledge to end a war no matter what — and, of course, Barack Obama had to order troops back to Iraq when ISIS took over a swathe of the country.
If and when the Afghan civil war ends, it will involve a settlement with the Taliban and the Afghan government. This was not even close to that. The Taliban agreed to begin talking only to the Afghan government, and the deal didn’t even entail a ceasefire. There were reportedly conditions in an annex that the Taliban would be very unlikely to meet, giving us the leeway to put the brakes on our withdrawal. But if we don’t want to get out — and we shouldn’t — why ink a deal that creates even more doubt about our staying power and legitimizes the Taliban?
Indeed, the negotiations had only emboldened the Taliban. President Trump cited a Taliban suicide car-bomb attack that had killed a U.S. soldier as the reason for pulling the plug on the Camp David meeting. As in his Hanoi summit with Kim Jong-il, Trump at least is willing to short-circuit his own theatrical diplomacy when it clearly makes no sense.
Now we should put aside the negotiations and work on a sustainable strategy for preserving a presence in Afghanistan. We should be looking to minimize our troop commitment within reason (the number the administration has talked about of 8,600 is probably workable), although what will likely be a renewed Taliban offensive should forestall any immediate drawdown. Unlike other terrorist hot spots, land-locked Afghanistan is not accessible to us from surrounding countries. A presence there doesn’t just stabilize the Afghan government, it gives us the option of launching operations into Pakistan (we never would have killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan if we hadn’t been in Afghanistan).
The fear that the Afghan war will be “endless” shouldn’t push us into ending it badly.