The pine-shaded cabins at Camp David have hosted secret peace summits between Middle Eastern leaders and high-stakes gatherings of major heads of state. For President Donald Trump, the mountainside retreat offered visions of another diplomatic coup: clandestine talks between US, Afghan and Taliban officials that could end America’s longest war.
Even opposition from within his own national security team, including Vice President Mike Pence, could not deter Trump from pressing forward with his plan to host Taliban leaders at the rural presidential getaway.
Trump eventually scrapped the event after a Taliban car bomb killed a US soldier and 11 others last week. But that decision came after heated debate within the administration over the venue for the summit — an outgrowth of larger, more substantial disagreements over the wisdom of negotiating with the Taliban at all.
The President told reporters Monday that discussions with the Taliban are “dead, as far as I’m concerned.”
The talks have pitted Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton against the nation’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose agency has led negotiations with the Taliban over the past 10 months.
Colouring the debate is Trump’s long-stated desire to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan after almost two decades of war. The President has insisted he fulfil his promise to bring more US soldiers home, but like his predecessors is finding few easy solutions to ending the war.
Trump disputed reports that he overruled Pence and “various advisers” on the Camp David meeting.
“I always think it is good to meet and talk, but in this case, I decided not to,” the President tweeted Monday.
It was the Friday before Labor Day when Trump convened a meeting in the Situation Room with his closest national security advisers to discuss the status of peace talks with the Taliban. He was supposed to leave the next day for a trip to Poland but had scrapped it the night before to stay back and monitor an approaching hurricane.
Pence, who Trump was sending to Poland in his place, wasn’t physically present but had been in touch with the President on the subject. Bolton also wasn’t there — he had remained in Europe following a G7 summit in France and had teleconferenced in.
Bolton and his staff at the National Security Council have long been mistrustful of US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who they believe had too much authority in leading the negotiations and was giving the Taliban leaders too much leverage. The national security adviser, who had been sidelined in the Afghanistan discussions, has voiced his criticism directly to the President.
Khalilzad was also seen by some members of Trump’s national security team as an extension of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and hostilities between Bolton and Pompeo have surfaced in recent weeks.
Even amid the scepticism, Pompeo and Khalilzad remained focused on securing a peace deal, which would reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan from roughly 14,000 to 8,000, aligning with the President’s own stated goal of withdrawal. Trump was briefed on the emerging deal during a meeting with his national security team at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course last month.
Along with other advisers who were fiercely critical of the terms of the emerging deal with the Taliban, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, Bolton believed Trump remained amenable to changing his mind if additional information is presented in a certain way, a source familiar with the situation said.