The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan

A week later, General Austin S. Miller, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, flew into Doha, and Khalilzad met him for breakfast. They were joined by Nader Nadery and Abdul Matin Bek, two young advisers to Ghani, who had spoken with Taliban envoys. Nadery and Bek reported that several Taliban had boasted contemptuously about defeating America. “They’re running with their tails between their legs,” one of the Taliban negotiators had exclaimed. Bek later told Khalilzad to “wake up.” “Please, for God’s sake, the Taliban are not in favor of negotiations, they are not in favor of a political settlement,” he said. “They’re really on a victory march.”

Khalilzad told him not to worry. “I’ve cornered them,” he said. “There will be a political settlement.” (Khalilzad denied that this exchange took place.)

There was nothing to announce on July 14th. On August 7th, at the Diplomatic Club, the negotiating teams discussed two secret “annexes” to the main draft agreement, to resolve the remaining disputes. One would detail the Taliban’s commitments to suppressing Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The other would attempt to link a U.S. withdrawal to a reduction in the war’s violence. Recognizing that the Taliban would not end its military campaign against the Islamic Republic, Khalilzad proposed that all sides temporarily halt fighting in five of the country’s thirty-four provinces so that the U.S. could safely begin its withdrawal. In the rest of Afghanistan, the war would continue, and, if the Taliban attacked Afghan units, American forces could intervene. If the Taliban stopped attacking Afghan units in any area, the U.S. would reciprocate, and there would be a local ceasefire. But since the U.S. had an “obligation” to defend its Afghan allies, Phee, Khalilzad’s deputy, explained, the scope of this reduction in violence would be determined by the Taliban. “You have the power,” she said. “If you don’t attack,” then “we won’t attack.” She acknowledged that the proposal was complicated. “We’d prefer a ceasefire everywhere,” she said.

The proposal was a prescription for confusion and further conflict. Both sides accepted that the U.S. would no longer engage in “offensive” operations against the Taliban. But the U.S. and the Taliban disagreed about the circumstances in which the U.S. could come to the defense of its allies. The Taliban argued that Miller’s forces could strike only guerrillas who were directly involved in attacks on Afghan forces, whereas Miller considered this interpretation too narrow, and concluded that he was also allowed to act in other ways, including striking preëmptively against Taliban fighters who were planning an attack.

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Either way, the U.S. concessions to the Taliban would clearly be a blow to Ghani’s military. For years, Afghan forces had relied on U.S. bombers and artillery to back up their ground attacks, and to strike Taliban encampments and supply lines. Now Afghan troops would be on their own during offensive campaigns, and, if they were attacked, they would face uncertainties about whether or when U.S. forces would go into action.

But Khalilzad believed that he had forged sufficient common ground to close the deal. He shared a draft text with Ghani—although, initially, not the proposed annexes, because he was worried about those sections leaking. Ghani, predictably, objected to the draft, and he marked up the document with changes. Pompeo and Khalilzad ignored most of his edits and arranged to brief Trump on the deal on August 16th, at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Khalilzad joined Trump in a conference room, along with Vice-President Mike Pence, Bolton, and other national-security officials. He described the Taliban’s promise that they would not allow Al Qaeda to attack the U.S. When it was noted that Ghani was unhappy with the deal, Trump said, “Why are you wasting your time going to talk to Ghani? He’s a crook.”

Trump then asked Khalilzad if he could give the Taliban “something to make them coöperate.”

“What are you talking about, Mr. President?”

“Like money.”

“No,” Khalilzad replied. “They’re on a terrorism list. We can’t give them money.”

Trump moved on to other topics before Khalilzad could explain that the Taliban’s war against Kabul was likely to continue.

On August 25th, in Doha, the Taliban accepted final annex drafts on counterterrorism and restrictions on fighting. The language prohibited the Taliban from attacking U.S. and NATO troops as they withdrew. “If one American dies after the deal is signed, then the deal is off,” Miller told the Taliban envoys, according to an official who was present. As for the Taliban’s ongoing war against the Islamic Republic, Miller would take “necessary and proportionate measures” to defend Kabul’s troops when they came under attack, without engaging in “offensive” operations.

The Taliban envoys also offered verbal commitments that the American officials documented for their record. On counterterrorism, the Taliban representatives said that they “welcome continued U.S. operations” against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. If the U.S. bombed the Islamic State, “we will hang flowers around your neck,” they said; as for Al Qaeda, they told the Americans, “Kill as many as you want.” In a concession to Miller, the Taliban also agreed not to attack major Afghan cities or any diplomatic facilities.

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In the end, the terms prioritized a safe American withdrawal. This was at a time when U.S. casualty numbers in Afghanistan had long been on the decline. U.S. and NATO troops seldom participated in on-the-ground fighting; their main jobs were to protect the government, train the Afghan Army, and provide air support. These roles were critical to the war effort, but they were also relatively low-risk. Since 2015, fewer than a dozen American soldiers had died annually in combat in Afghanistan. The yearly death toll suffered by the Islamic Republic’s soldiers and police was estimated at more than eight thousand. According to the United Nations, the war also claimed the lives of several thousand civilians each year.

At the end of August, Trump came up with a plan to invite the Taliban to Camp David to sign the agreement. Then, on September 5th, a car bomb detonated in Kabul, killing about a dozen people, including Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, a thirty-four-year-old U.S. Army sergeant. That weekend, Trump ended the peace talks with a tweet blaming the deaths on the Taliban: “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”

Pompeo told Khalilzad, “You should come home.”

When Trump pulled out of the agreement, “I literally jumped for joy,” a senior White House official recalled. “I was thrilled when that tweet came out.” Many officials throughout the government, including Bolton and other national-security aides, thought that the terms of the deal wildly advantaged the Taliban, and some were opposed to compromising altogether. (“The idea that we could negotiate ourselves with the Taliban, excluding the Afghan government, was lunacy,” Charles Kupperman, who had become Bolton’s deputy, said.) But their victory was short-lived. Two months later, Khalilzad’s team secured the release of two professors from the American University of Afghanistan—an American and an Australian—who had been kidnapped in 2016 and held by the Taliban’s Haqqani faction, a group with ties to Al Qaeda. Earlier, Ghani had freed Anas Haqqani, a young member of the network. In the aftermath of these prisoner releases, Pompeo told Khalilzad to try to re-start peace talks.

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On December 7th, Baradar met Khalilzad again in Doha, still seeking an American commitment to promptly leave Afghanistan. “Our main goal is the designation of a date and an announcement” for signing the agreement, Baradar said. They decided to sign the deal negotiated the previous summer. The Taliban promised to reduce violence for seven days before the deal was official, to demonstrate their commitment. Pompeo called Ghani to inform him that an accord was again at hand, and only then did Ghani learn that few of his objections had been taken into account.

On February 29, 2020, at the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort, Khalilzad and Baradar, sitting on a makeshift stage, signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. The accord stated that on March 10, 2020, “the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations” to seek an enduring peace, and the United States pledged to pull out its combat forces by May of 2021. Ghani, who concluded that he had no choice but to coöperate, issued a “joint declaration” with the Trump Administration, in which he endorsed the deal’s general goals while making it clear that he disagreed with the terms. At the ceremony in Doha, Pompeo told attendees that the agreement “will mean nothing” unless all its parties “take concrete action on commitments and promises that have been made.” Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, issued a statement from an unknown location, calling the American commitment to withdraw “the collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation.”

The next day, Trump called Ghani. “We’re relying on you to get this done,” he said, meaning a power-sharing deal with the Taliban. The accord was “popular among the American people,” Trump went on. “It’s popular among my enemies as well.” Ghani replied that the key would be “verifiable action” by the Taliban to reduce their violence, but he said that he was prepared to send a team to negotiate with them.

“Great step,” Trump said. “We need to get this done. Call me if you need anything.”

Two days later, Trump called Baradar. According to an official who listened to the exchange, Trump told him, “You guys are tough fighters.” Then Trump asked, “Do you need something from me?”

“We need to get prisoners released,” Baradar said, adding that he had heard Ghani would not coöperate. Trump said that he would tell Pompeo to press Ghani.

Cartoon by Will McPhail

Later that month, Pompeo met with Ghani in Kabul and urged him to be flexible about releasing the Taliban’s prisoners. But he also gave him an assurance: “The United States is your leverage. If we do not get what we want, we will not leave,” he said. “We will only leave when there is a political resolution.”

“This clarity that you will stand with us in the negotiation is something that we have never had,” Ghani told him.

Then Pompeo qualified his earlier statement: “The only thing that will change that is if we have no progress.” Ghani did not appear to absorb this warning. Later, he quoted Pompeo’s comment to a European diplomat, calling it a “turning point”—evidence that the U.S. truly would not abandon the Islamic Republic until there was a negotiated peace.

That spring, the Taliban submitted the names of the five thousand prisoners for whom it was demanding release before power-sharing talks could begin. A group of U.S. intelligence officers and other officials reviewed the Taliban names and produced an “objection list,” which contained several convicted murderers, including Nargis Mohammad Hasan, an Afghan police officer born in Iran who, in 2012, had killed Joseph Griffin, an American police trainer, at the Kabul police headquarters. Also on the list was a prisoner known as Hekmatullah, a former Afghan soldier who had killed three off-duty Australian soldiers while they were playing poker and the board game Risk. Their cases were just two of dozens of “insider attacks”—killings of off-duty soldiers and civilians, typically by Taliban recruits—that had come to shadow the American war.

Ghani’s advisers were developing their own list of several hundred prisoners who they said were problematic—murderers, kidnappers, and drug traffickers, some on death row. In late May, Ghani released just under a thousand prisoners, whom his advisers had identified as low-risk. But the Taliban held firm: release all five thousand or no negotiations. “The Talibs became adamant,” Khalilzad recalled. “They knew that we were so desperate that the intra-Afghan negotiations begin.”

Rather than put more pressure on the Taliban, the Trump Administration continued to focus on getting Ghani to bend. As they wrestled over the prisoner problem, Khalilzad visited Ghani at the Arg palace, carrying a message from Trump: “We are ready to work with President Ghani, but if there is a perception that the big picture is being sacrificed for small matters then we are ready to change our relationship.”

Ghani was unmoved. “The U.S. doesn’t owe us anything,” he told Khalilzad. “If you want to leave, then leave—no hard feelings.”

Ghani clearly preferred a long-term military alliance with Washington, and he spent much of his Presidency pleading with American envoys for more support. But the Afghan President chafed at the expectations placed on him by the U.S. Notionally, he was the sovereign leader of a constitutional democracy. He considered this a matter of high principle, and annoyed diplomats by often falling back on “legalistic and formalistic expressions of Afghan legitimacy,” as a senior State Department official put it. In reality, the state that Ghani led was deeply dependent on American money and military power. “They would give us hints about what they wanted us to do, but if we did not do those things then we would get heavy pressure,” Mohib, Ghani’s national-security adviser, said. Ghani’s suggestions that the Republic would be fine without the U.S. were either shows of bravado or simply wishful thinking.

That July, Trump decided that he would cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by roughly half, to about four thousand. Khalilzad was disappointed: he had expected the Trump Administration to conduct a formal review of the Taliban’s compliance with the Doha deal before withdrawing more troops, but it hadn’t. At that point, Khalilzad’s assessment was that Taliban compliance was mixed. They had refrained from attacking U.S. forces, as promised, and had reduced fedayeen-style assaults and truck bombings in cities and large district capitals. They delivered a three-day ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr in late May that mostly held up well. Yet they continued to attack Afghan forces, costing hundreds of Afghan lives.

Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Ghani in Kabul and assured him that the pullout didn’t mean that the U.S. was giving up on Afghanistan. “We have signed up for a conditional drawdown,” he said, using language that had been given to him by Pompeo: U.S. troops would stay until certain conditions had been met, and one of those conditions was that the Taliban and the Islamic Republic engage in negotiations. And yet it was obvious to everyone by now that Trump could overrule his generals at any time.

On July 29th, Khalilzad and Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, met with Ghani at his residence, with new assurances from Baradar. They conveyed to Ghani that, if he released everyone on the Taliban list, the Taliban would very likely “reduce violence significantly” and start power-sharing talks right away. Ghani recoiled at the proposition. “If the U.S. wants to release people who have death sentences, and the biggest drug traffickers in the world, then you should take responsibility for it,” he said. “I’m not.”

Eventually, Ghani found a compromise that gave the Americans what they wanted. He called a loya jirga, a traditional consultative assembly, to decide the fate of the most problematic Taliban prisoners. In early August, the loya jirga approved the release of everyone on the Taliban’s list, including Hasan and the other prisoners on the “objection list.” (An Afghan intelligence official said that, weeks after Hasan was released, someone from the F.B.I. asked if she could be recaptured, but she had already fled to Iran.)

On September 12th, at the Sharq resort, intra-Afghan talks were formally inaugurated, six months after the Doha accord had specified. The group of twenty-one delegates sent by Kabul had been preparing for months, like athletes training for a big season perpetually delayed, and a German foundation had delivered seminars on how to negotiate for peace. But, at the Sharq, the Kabul team found that the Taliban were exceedingly stubborn. It took more than two months to resolve one agenda item. The Taliban “were feeling a kind of pride that they had defeated the United States,” Habiba Sarabi, one of the delegates, recalled.

At the same time, the guerrillas mounted offensives in Kandahar and Helmand that were clearly “violations in spirit, if not the written word” of the Doha accord, Miller said. During the last three months of 2020, after the prisoner releases, violence spiked across Afghanistan, and civilian casualties rose by forty-five per cent, compared with 2019. The onslaught “exacerbated the environment of fear and paralyzed many parts of society,” the U.N. reported. The Taliban also protested many American strikes carried out in support of Afghan forces, calling them a violation of the Doha accord’s annex on managing combat. Like aggressive corporate litigators seeking to drown their opponents in paper, the guerrillas filed more than sixteen hundred complaints to Khalilzad’s team, and used them to justify their intensifying military campaign against Kabul.

When Joe Biden ran for Senate in 1972, at the age of twenty-nine, he campaigned on his opposition to the Vietnam War. He did not claim that the war was immoral; rather, he believed that it was “merely stupid and a horrendous waste of time, money and lives based on a flawed premise,” as he later wrote in his memoir. Biden has approached the Afghan war with similar skepticism. In 2009, as Vice-President, Biden met Karzai, the Afghan President at the time, who urged him to work harder to end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. “Mr. President,” Biden replied, according to Karzai and another Afghan present, “Pakistan is fifty times more important to the United States than Afghanistan.” In 2015, Ghani and Abdullah joined Biden for breakfast in Washington, where he told them that the Afghan war was “unwinnable.” According to Mohib, Ghani’s national-security adviser, Afghan officials were left convinced that if Biden were ever President “he will probably want to withdraw.”

After Biden was elected, in November, 2020, he named Jake Sullivan as national-security adviser and Antony Blinken as Secretary of State. Both men had years of experience working in government, and they were well acquainted with the miserable set of policy options in Afghanistan. It was unclear whether Biden would follow Trump’s deal to the letter, abandon it, or make adjustments in response to the Taliban’s violence. During the Presidential transition, Sullivan, Blinken, and other advisers sent Biden a memo reporting that the talks with the Taliban weren’t going anywhere. Khalilzad had apparently failed to get the Taliban and the Islamic Republic to work together, but Biden asked him to stay on as special representative at least through the spring. He knew all the players, and if the Biden Administration wanted to meet the Doha accord’s May 1st deadline for a full U.S. troop withdrawal, it would have to work quickly.

As soon as Biden took office, Mohib sought a meeting at the White House, but was told that only a phone call would be possible. Mohib, who had earned a doctorate in electrical engineering in Britain and had served as Afghanistan’s Ambassador in Washington from 2015 to 2018, had been Ghani’s national-security adviser for three years. Methodical, calm, and hard to read, he was intensely loyal to Ghani, whose ideas inspired him, but he was increasingly seen as the instrument—if not the instigator—of Ghani’s micromanaging.

On January 22nd, Mohib spoke on the phone with Sullivan. The new Administration sought to preserve Afghanistan’s social and economic gains, Sullivan said, including “democracy, rights of women, and rights of minorities.” If the Taliban did not engage in “meaningful and sincere negotiations” in Doha, “they will bear the consequences of their choices.” He added that he did not mean this with “a view to escalate the conflict but to take a hard-nosed look at the situation.”

Sullivan inaugurated an interagency policy review at the National Security Council: briefings and debates that would inform Biden’s decision on Afghanistan. The U.S. troop presence had fallen to twenty-five hundred. Miller, the Resolute Support commander, felt strongly that Biden should keep these troops in place beyond the deadline, pessimistic about what would happen to the Afghan military if U.S. forces left. Much of the discussion came down to whether it made sense to keep trying to forge a deal between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic, and, if so, for how long.

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