WASHINGTON – Plans for U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, in keeping with President Donald Trump's pledge to end the war there, were thrown into confusion Sunday following Trump's decision to call off a secret meeting he planned with Afghan and Taliban leaders to secure a peace deal.
Competing versions of what led to the cancellation of the meeting and, at least temporarily, any further U.S.-Taliban negotiations, exposed internal administration tensions that have flared as a deal seemed near in recent weeks.
Those tensions have pitted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said a week ago that agreement "in principle" had been reached after 10 months of talks with the militants, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who opposed the talks.
"I hope not," Pompeo said in response to questions about whether the initial drawdown of at least 5,000 troops — more than a third of the total now in Afghanistan — planned for early next year would be delayed, along with a subsequent full withdrawal tentatively planned to take place by the end of 2020. In exchange, the Taliban were to pledge to cut ties with al-Qaida and support counterterrorism efforts.
But "any reduction in our forces will be based on actual conditions" on the ground, Pompeo said on NBC's "Meet the Press," one of five Sunday TV interviews he gave after Trump's surprise announcement, made late Saturday on Twitter, about the planned Sunday meeting at Camp David.
The Defense Department, Pompeo said on "Fox News Sunday," has "full authority to do what they need to do" to protect U.S. forces and prevent another terrorist attack like the one on Sept. 11, 2001, the 18th anniversary of which is Wednesday. Asked whether U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan at their current level of more than 14,000, Pompeo told CBS that "I can't answer that question. Ultimately, it's the president's decision."
But others said Trump was likely to move ahead with the planned initial withdrawal, regardless of the apparent collapse of talks. One official familiar with White House deliberations cast Trump's cancellation of the meeting — which the president said was in response to the death on Thursday of a U.S. soldier in a Taliban attack, one of 16 killed since the beginning of this year — as part of a broader Bolton win.
Trump was the main person pushing for the Camp David meeting, according to a senior administration official who, like others who discussed the sensitive issue, spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Comparing the initiative to Trump's personal meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and his stated desire to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, this official said Trump thinks his personal style can persuade anyone, and that he has seen the possibility of a substantial Afghan withdrawal as a major plus for his re-election campaign.
While many in the administration have questioned the Taliban talks, Pompeo and Bolton have been at loggerheads over this issue and others, with Bolton, a well-known hawk, charging that Pompeo was trying to "box him out" of decision-making on Afghanistan.
Bolton had expressed his reservations about the deal at the time Khalilzad briefed Trump on its terms in late August, according to the official familiar with White House deliberations.
While State Department officials said that Trump indicated during that meeting that he was provisionally satisfied with the deal, and authorized Khalilzad to move forward, this official said the president had not approved a final agreement, and that Bolton had continued to advocate another path. Bolton, the official said, had been in direct communication with Khalilzad, the White House of chief of staff and the president outside of Pompeo's presence.
Bolton has not opposed reducing the existing U.S. troop level to 8,600 — about the number in Afghanistan when Trump took office — but rejects any deal with the Taliban. His view is that the president can meet his campaign promise of withdrawal without a deal and can simply decide on a reduction.
An official familiar with the State Department approach noted that Pompeo is careful to never allow daylight to appear between him and the president. This official pointed out that Pompeo was designated to represent the administration on all five major Sunday morning talk shows.
There was little disagreement that events of the weekend will probably lead to increased violence in Afghanistan. Pompeo denied extensive reports that the Taliban had made significant battlefield gains in recent months. "If you're the Taliban, conditions have been worsening. And they're about to get worse."
"You should know in the last 10 days we've killed over a thousand Taliban," Pompeo told CNN. "And while this is not a war of attrition, I want the American people to know that President Trump is taking it to the Taliban in an effort to make sure that we protect America's interests."
The Taliban said the decision to end the U.S.-Taliban peace process for now would "lead to more losses for the United States," spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement. "Its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase."
In tweets sent Saturday, Trump said that he had canceled the arrival of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and "the major Taliban leaders" after the death of Army Sgt. First Class Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, 34, who was killed on Thursday in a Taliban attack. "If they cannot agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks …they probably don't have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway."
U.S. officials said the decision to cancel the Camp David meeting, which had been in the planning stages for more than a week, was made Thursday. The senior administration official said that Trump decided to tweet about its existence, and its cancellation, on Saturday evening to "control the narrative."
As controversy about the status of the Taliban talks swept Washington and Kabul on Sunday, the president, who spent the day playing golf, did not mention it again amid tweets about Ivanka Trump's travels in South America and his planned political rally in North Carolina on Monday.
The Afghan president apparently wasn't informed about the cancellation until Friday. His office said that morning that Ghani planned to travel to Washington over the weekend for consultations. Later, officials said his travel had been "postponed."
Some Republicans quickly censured the Camp David idea. "Camp David is where America's leaders met to plan our response after al-Qaida, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11," Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, tweeted. "No member of the Taliban should ever set foot there. Ever."