Foreign Affairs

Foreign Policy Is Serious Business. Alas, We Have an Unserious President.

Always remember that Trump got rid of John Bolton because Bolton didn't want Taliban leaders to come to Camp David.
September 16, 2019
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(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Trump celebrated the 18th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks a few days early by announcing that he had planned to hold personal negotiations with the top leadership of the Taliban—and to do so at Camp David, no less. He canceled it, he said, when the Taliban admitted responsibility for a bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier. Trump asked: “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?”

Is this a serious question? Of course it isn’t, because it’s not being asked by a serious person. For the record, the answer to “what kind of people would do this?” is “the Taliban,” which is why negotiating with them on a peace agreement was an absurdity to begin with.

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Yet that seems to have been the actual goal of the talks. From the New York Times

[Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and his negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, made the case that it would enable Mr. Trump to begin withdrawing troops while securing a commitment from the Taliban not to shelter terrorists.

That was also the impetus for Trump’s hare-brained idea of bringing terrorist leaders to the most secure site of the American presidency.

In the days that followed, Mr. Trump came up with an even more remarkable idea—he would not only bring the Taliban to Washington, but to Camp David, the crown jewel of the American presidency. The leaders of a rugged militant organization deemed terrorists by the United States would be hosted in the mountain getaway used for presidents, prime ministers, and kings just three days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that led to the Afghan war.

We see once again Trump’s absurd overconfidence in his self-mythologized image as a supreme deal-maker whose personal intervention will solve all problems. This is how he approached negotiations with North Korea, and the result has been a whole new round of North Korean missile tests. Notice also the personal pettiness when the whole thing goes wrong (and the whole thing almost always goes wrong). Rather than being embarrassed by the idea and trying to make sure no one ever knows about it, Trump broadcasts it on Twitter so he can insult the Taliban in the worst way he knows: by throwing shade on their skills as negotiators.

To get an idea of what a bad deal this was, consider this aspect of the negotiations.

Among the most significant [issues] was a disagreement over the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners in Afghan prisons.

Afghan officials said the Americans had taken the liberty of negotiating on their behalf by agreeing to the release. Mr. Ghani’s government found that unacceptable, saying it would agree only if the Taliban reciprocated with an extensive cease-fire—something the insurgents are reluctant to do at this stage of the talks since violence is their main leverage.

No sane person thought this was going to work. While John Bolton has his faults—he is reputed to have a very abrasive personality—he is a sane person. So naturally he was promptly fired as national security adviser.

The decision came after widespread reports that Bolton tried to stop Trump from inviting leaders of the Afghan Taliban to Camp David for peace talks. Trump ultimately scrapped the idea, but multiple people familiar with the issue said the news reports about Bolton’s dissent—believed to have been planted by Bolton aides—infuriated Trump.

In other words, Bolton was trying to protect his reputation from association with a scheme for appeasing terrorists. It seems like the worst reason at the worst time for firing a top national security official.


The motive for a peace deal with the Taliban, the reason why anyone would want to believe in such a fantasy, is the complaint that we are engaged in an “endless war.” It’s a slogan used by the anti-war left, but it has also been adopted by libertarians and more recently by nationalist conservatives. As the New York Times puts it, “Afghanistan is America’s longest war—18 years. That’s longer than World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.”

That sounds really terrible, until you reflect how much lower the cost of our continued presence in Afghanistan is. In 18 years of fighting, 2,372 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan, 1,856 from direct enemy action. (The larger number includes accidental deaths.) Those numbers peaked during a mini-surge in 2010-2011 but dropped to about a dozen per year by 2017, of which the majority are accidents. By contrast, there are single days in World War I and World War II that saw higher U.S. casualties than our entire 18 years in Iraq, and in Korea a single battle, at Chosin Reservoir, claimed more Marines. So pardon me if I don’t suffer from much nostalgia for these short but extremely intense wars—and if I don’t use their duration as the standard for our strategy in Afghanistan.

If you had told me 18 years ago that today we would still have a small follow-on force in Afghanistan, I don’t think I would have been surprised. It is a remote and primitive place that was not likely to be rendered safe for civilization any time soon. That’s especially true given what we have learned since then, which is the extent to which Afghanistan is hostage to the religious and civil dysfunction of Pakistan, its much larger neighbor and its gateway to the rest of the world.

But America is a wealthy nation with a very large and well-equipped military that is perfectly capable of maintaining 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Afghanistan simply as a hedge against the re-emergence of a threat that may seem small and remote—but turned out, 18 years ago, to hit us at our very heart.

That’s the calculation a serious military and foreign policy advisor would make—but it has become clear by now that the commander in chief just doesn’t want to listen.