As messy and tragic as this troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has been, I believe President Biden did the right thing. He carried through a promise that three other presidents could not keep. There could have been more planning around the exit strategy, yes, but ultimately we could not win a civil war in that country.
This is all reflected in his statements about the crisis: “We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence” and “The choice I had to make . . . was either to follow through on that agreement [made by the Trump administration] or be prepared to go back fighting the Taliban . . .”
As we look at how this current tragedy unfolded, we need to ask some hard and uncomfortable questions about the Trump administration’s actions leading up to this fiasco.
It has been a long-held custom that American presidents do not negotiate with terrorists. So why was the Trump administration doing that in the first place?
President Trump, who always wanted to get troops out of Afghanistan, negotiated a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, signed by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a witness. It is important to note that Afghanistan’s then-president Ashraf Ghani was not invited to participate in the negotiations.
The deal meant that troop withdrawal could begin in 2020 (giving a boost to Trump’s re-election effort), but also, as part of the deal, 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security forces would be exchanged in March, when talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were to begin.
At the time, Afghani activist Zahra Husseini prophetically said, “Today is a dark day, and as I was watching the deal being signed, I had this bad feeling that it would result in their return to power rather than in peace.”
It’s also important to know that Baradar was captured by the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and the CIA from Pakistan in 2010. He was released in 2018, at the request of the United States, and is now poised to become the leader of the new Taliban government.
How many of those 5,000 released Taliban prisoners are now in the streets of Kabul? See where negotiating with terrorists gets you?
Some may recall that Trump originally wanted to meet with the Taliban at Camp David in the days around September 11, 2019, a prospect that John Bolton called the dumbest idea he’d ever heard. He was summarily fired.
After the 2020 election, it was widely reported that the Biden Administration was alarmed that they were not being invited into important transition-team meetings all through December. There were important matters to discuss, such as the effort to distribute vaccines and other pandemic issues, the hacking of government networks that were attributed to Russia, and — please note — the carrying out of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Trump administration never gave a satisfactory answer as to why transition meetings were being delayed until January.
Among other things, were security secrets given to the Taliban during closed-door meetings? How can we know the terms of the Taliban negotiations?
During the uprising of the Taliban and the collapse of the Afghan government in the last two weeks, it is also noteworthy that the Russian embassy was and is being protected by the Taliban, and that Russian leaders did not feel the need to evacuate their embassy the way Western countries did.
Why is that?
Perhaps not unrelated to all of this, Mary Trump, the niece of the former president and a psychologist and the author of Too Much and Never Enough, has said that, if Trump lost the election, his attitude would be: “You didn’t vote for me? I’ll burn you down.” This was echoed by his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, who said Trump would never go quietly.
We know he has not gone quietly, and his behavior around January 6th certainly seemed like a gambit to “destroy” democracy on his way out the door.
But what if there were planned, covert actions to destroy, outside of that public event?
What if, on his way out the door, his negotiations with the Taliban were to ensure a failed outcome if Biden followed through and withdrew troops from Afghanistan? Could this have been a way to make Biden look bad, paving the way for Trump’s own comeback and possible run in 2024?
I’m no foreign policy expert, nor a government employee or diplomat. I simply have curiosity.
While the Biden Administration will take the blame for much of this disaster, and will now have to clean it up somehow, it’s worth asking these questions of the Trump administration. He was a man — and his was an administration — that knew how to stir things up, while simultaneously keeping journalists, investigators, and Congressional oversight committees one step behind and keeping himself out of trouble.
On these latest conditions in Afghanistan, how far would he go? How far did he go? What, if anything, was his end game?
We best not let these questions slide by, unanswered.