Another historic Camp David summit was not to be.
We didn’t learn until late Saturday that President Trump planned to meet with Taliban leaders at the Maryland retreat to finalize a peace deal for Afghanistan. That news came through presidential tweets announcing that the secret session had been canceled, in the wake of a Taliban attack whose victims included an American soldier.
This is one of those rare instances when Trump is drawing criticism from some of his allies on the right as well as his harshest critics on the left. Just about everyone seems relieved that the agreement collapsed at the last minute.
And the plan to use Camp David, where Jimmy Carter famously negotiated peace between Israel and Egypt, is bringing an extra measure of passion to the debate.
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Simply put, it is hard for many Americans to stomach that the Taliban, who harbored Osama bin Laden in the runup to 9/11, would be given a civilized welcome by a president of the United States in those storied cabins–especially with the anniversary of that terrible day approaching.
It may well have been a bad idea for several reasons. But I will say this: Many people have a hard time understanding why, 18 years later, the United States still has troops in a country torn by civil war. And Trump ran for the White House as an opponent of endless wars.
No one wants to allow brutal terrorists to again operate with impunity in Afghanistan—but few want American troops bogged down there for decades.
The New York Times, which has by far the most detailed reporting on the episode, said it has “all of the characteristic traits of the Trump presidency — the yearning ambition for the grand prize, the endless quest to achieve what no other president has achieved, the willingness to defy convention, the volatile mood swings and the tribal infighting.”
The Washington Post says that when the top U.S. negotiator asked for a summit meeting in D.C., “Taliban leaders said they accepted the idea — as long as the visit came after the deal was announced.
“That would become a fundamental dividing point contributing to the collapse of the talks. Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal; after staying out of the details of what has been a delicate effort in a complicated region, Mr. Trump wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be.”
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These and other news outlets agree that the maneuvering highlighted the divisions between Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State, and John Bolton, the national security adviser. Pompeo, according to the Times, increasingly tried to isolate Bolton, the leading opponent of the deal.
The tentative agreement would have the U.S. withdrawing its remaining 14,000 troops over 16 months in exchange for counterterrorism assurances from the Taliban. Bolton has argued that Trump could pull out 5,000 troops without a deal. But what incentive do the Taliban have make concessions if the American troop presence is being slashed anyway? And how come the Afghan government isn’t in on these talks?
Lindsey Graham and retired generals David Petraeus and Jack Keane counseled Trump against the meeting, as did (according to CNN) Mike Pence. (Trump called it fake news that he overruled the VP and other advisers, saying the “Dishonest Media likes to create the look of turmoil in the White House.” He also tweeted that “we have been serving as policemen in Afghanistan.”)
Rep. Liz Cheney tweeted, “Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever. The Taliban still harbors al Qaeda. The President is right to end the talks.”
I wonder whether the car bombing that killed the American soldier is the entire reason for Trump’s pullback. After all, it’s routine to hold peace talks while wars are raging unless there’s a cease-fire. Perhaps the president thought the death would just galvanize the deal’s opponents.
But what rankles most of all is the venue. The Vietnam peace talks were held in Paris. The two summits with Kim Jong-un were in Singapore and Hanoi. The summit meeting with Vladimir Putin was in Helsinki. To invite the terroristic Taliban to Camp David, whatever the negotiating details, is really hard to swallow.