The End of the U.S.-Taliban Talks? with Jonathan Cristol

September 18, 2019

Shah-e-Doshamshera Mosque, Kabul, Afghanistan. CREDIT: Masoud Akbari (CC)

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week I'm speaking with Jonathan Cristol. Jonathan is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars program at Adelphi University and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.

Jonathan is also the author of The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11, so I asked him back to speak about the latest news on the war in Afghanistan and the U.S.-Taliban negotiations. This is our third podcast on this subject.

We'll go into much more detail in a few more minutes, but the basis of our talk is President Trump's September 7 tweet, which effectively ended the latest round of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. These talks officially started last October. For a while it looked like there had been a breakthrough and the war, the longest in U.S. history, could be coming to a close.

Jonathan and I also touch on John Bolton's departure as national security advisor, the Taliban's recent visit to Moscow, and how this episode might look to North Korea and Iran.

Jonathan's book, The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11, will be available in paperback on October 12 and it's available in hardcover now. I highly recommend it. You will have a new understanding of the Taliban after reading it.

But for now, here’s my latest talk with Jonathan Cristol.

Jonathan, thank you for coming back again.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Thanks for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: This will be our third official podcast talk about the Taliban. We did a fourth talk, off the podcast, a few months ago.

I'm having you here today because of a tweet that Donald Trump sent on September 7. I don't really want to read the whole tweet, but he basically said that the Taliban leaders and the Afghan government were going to meet at Camp David around September 11, and these were secret talks. He canceled them because the Taliban killed a U.S. service member in an attack, along with 11 other people in Afghanistan.

I don't follow this as closely as you, so that was the first that I had seen about these negotiations in the mainstream press for a while, but I know a lot had been happening leading up to that tweet. What had been happening as you understand it leading up to September 7?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: It looked like over the past few months up until that tweet and the revelation of this possible meeting at Camp David that the United States and the Taliban were getting closer to a formal "peace agreement." What it seems like this agreement was going to do was give a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with X number of thousand troops to withdraw immediately and the rest over time.

In exchange, the Taliban would provide "safe passage" for those troops. That phrase has been coming up in the media a lot, but what we mean by safe passage here is safe passage out of the country, like they wouldn't hit the rear flank as the United States withdrew, and that the Taliban would pledge to not allow terrorist activity emanating from Afghanistan.

There are a few things we don't know. One, is it a pledge to not allow terrorist activity at all toward anyone or just toward the United States—leaving aside the value of that pledge, which we can talk about—and what are the numbers of troops that will remain and for how long, but it does seem like there was some willingness to do this.

What there has not been willingness to do on the part of the Taliban is to speak directly with the Afghan government, and that's one of a couple of reasons why I'm quite skeptical that this meeting, at least as the president described in 280 characters, was realistically going to happen or if there had even been any sort of plan at all for it to happen. The Taliban have not shown any willingness to speak with the Afghan government, and the Afghan government doesn't want to be shut out.

So, yes, they're willing to talk, but that's because what choice do they have, but the idea that you're going to get these three together—that's not unuseful. I'm not opposed to that in principle, but that tweet I think—even to people who follow this very closely and may even have written a book about it—was a shock, in large part because it came out of nowhere and a shock that you would have this meeting in the United States the week of September 11.

I've seen in the media, in reporting about this, a lot of conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and that's a mistake; they're totally different entities. The Taliban were not directly responsible for 9/11 in any way, shape, or form. That said—and they've been to the United States many, many, many, many times, as I've documented, and it was not a secret—the idea you're going to do this the week of September 11 is surprisingly politically inept for a president who I think his only skill is having some sort of political street smarts. I think he thought there'd be some sort of maybe great peace ceremony, and he would end this conflict and declare victory, and maybe his 38 percent of America would buy that. But I think that same 38 percent was not going to be thrilled with seeing Taliban leaders at Camp David. This was a crazy tweet, even if it's rooted in a reasonable premise.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to talk a little bit more about the tweet and Camp David and that whole thing, but the deal that you mentioned—special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the main negotiator for the United States—the deal he negotiated with the Taliban, I've seen some criticism of it for different reasons. What was your take on the deal as it stood before Trump blew up the negotiations?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I think the criticism of the deal is quite warranted, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take it. It is interesting to me that you have a surprisingly solid and effective set of people on the American side negotiating I think in good faith with the Taliban to reach an agreement that—I don't really see too many people who think the Taliban are going to abide by their end of the bargain.

Trying to negotiate a face-saving way out of Afghanistan is in my view what we're actually doing, and I have no real problem with that. The war in Afghanistan is lost. We didn't achieve any of our original objectives. Some people will say, "Well, we decimated al-Qaeda." That's true, but we didn't need to invade and occupy Afghanistan to do so, certainly not the occupy part.

I think that this negotiation, while it's in some ways farcical, I'm also not opposed to it taking place because the reality is when the United States leaves—and we are going to leave sometime—the Taliban are going to take over.

I would prefer us to approach these negotiations from the perspective that we've lost and try to actively mitigate the worst possible consequences of that defeat, and what I mean by that is what we should be negotiating is how long do we have to remain in Kabul, not only free passage for American troops out but free passage for people who will want to join us through asylum in the United States and in other countries, how long before the Taliban take Kabul, which they'll do eventually, but maybe you could actually reach an agreement that says, "Well, they're not going to even attempt it." We're not going to sell out Kabul to the degree where we say, "Oh, well, you can take it in six months," but where the Taliban agree to stay behind a certain line until X number of months or years down the road. They might abide by that actually.

I think we should be negotiating from the position that we've lost. Look, I'm not in the room in Doha. Maybe we are doing that, even if we don't say we're doing that, but that's how I think we need to approach it because if we approach it as this is somehow going to be some sort of victory, that concerns me, and that's not really factually accurate.

I've said before, the Taliban don't care about us. They are not going to follow us home, they are not going to murder us here, they're not going to mount attacks in the United States. They don't care about us. But the fact that they don't care about us is why we can't trust them when they say they'll prevent terrorist activity or they'll prevent al-Qaeda from returning and planning attacks against the United States because they don't care, and that's what the case was in the 1990s.

Even Mullah Omar, who was Osama bin Laden's fishing buddy, I'm sure he didn't mind ultimately the 9/11 attack, but he didn't care really. He wasn't the one pushing it or planning it. They don't care about us. We have to realize that they're not going to expend their own lives on our behalf. To think that is like magical thinking to say the least.

I'm not quite sure of the particulars of what they're negotiating over and beyond that, but my real hope is that these negotiations drag out and drag out until the next administration. As we've discussed on the podcast before, I think it is very important we do withdraw, and we're throwing good money after bad and we're throwing good lives after good lives, but we need to protect people in Afghanistan who want and deserve protection, and I don't think we should do it there at great cost. I think we should provide them that protection by bringing them to the United States and to our allies and to other safe countries through agreements that we negotiate. People who want to stay can stay, and people who want to leave can leave. But since I am a betting man, I would bet a Mitt Romney-style bet that this administration is not going to do that, so I hope this drags out.

The president in that tweet—I'm sorry to keep going back to it.

ALEX WOODSON: No, no. I do want to go back to it actually.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: When he says that he's canceling this talk—which may or may not have existed in the first place—because one American service member was killed, well, the Taliban have been killing American servicemen left, right, and center while we've been talking all along, not to mention thousands of Afghan civilians. If that was the root of why we shouldn't talk to them, then I'm not sure why we were talking to them to begin with. But it's sort of irrelevant. We are engaged in a military conflict with them, and we're going to keep killing each other, even while we're talking, until an agreement is reached.

I do think they would abide by something—they will make it politically easy for us to withdraw, by once an agreement is reached not attacking us because that will provoke the president and some other folks to want to stay. I think that was clearly just an excuse for other parties canceling the president's big 9/11 photo op.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. I don't know what to call it.

Would your understanding be that the fact that the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the Afghan government was maybe the biggest reason why this meeting didn't come together as Trump had hoped it would?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: That is possible. Their unwillingness is probably the big sticking point in general, not about the meeting per se, but if what Khalilzad and the U.S. team is trying to do is get the Taliban to agree to be part of a political process, that's a quite reasonable goal. I actually think we're probably underestimating the actual support and seats they would get were they to run for election—probably not a majority, but Americans think, Who would vote for those people? They'd get some votes.

But the fact that they're not willing to speak to that government does not bode well for participating in an Afghan democracy. I think the Afghan government and certainly civil society organizations realize that.

You can look at what the Taliban leaders—they were more moderate leaders—said to American negotiators in the 1990s that, "Democracy means that the majority control everything." That's almost an exact quote—not exactly—and they wouldn't be the majority, so if that's what they still think, they're going to think that they're going to be steamrolled anyway, and why would they agree to being steamrolled?

ALEX WOODSON: My last question about the tweet specifically and this episode before we move on to what's going to happen in the future, I think less than a week after the tweet, John Bolton left the administration—fired, resigned, we might never know. Was that because of this? I'm sure there are many different issues, but was this the straw that broke the camel's back for John Bolton?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: It very well could have been. What I would suspect is that it isn't necessarily that—I don't know Bolton personally—he was so offended by the premise of meeting with the Taliban on 9/11 in the United States that caused him to just split, but I think what that indicated to Bolton was that he had lost on every issue that he cared about. He had lost on Iran, he had lost on North Korea, he had lost on negotiations with the Taliban.

People have asked me, "How will this change things?" That's a question I think a lot of people in this field are being asked.

ALEX WOODSON: That's my next question actually.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I don't think Bolton's department will change very much at all because if Bolton was going to win, he would have won. If his arguments were winning, they would have won.

He didn't get his way on any of these things. We're not at war with North Korea—the president is still talking about his great lover Kim Jong-un, and if the president knew how to compose sonnets he'd probably be spending his evenings writing Elizabethan love sonnets to Kim Jong-un.

The Iran thing is a bit more complicated on the news in the past couple of days, but despite what the president has tweeted about the fake media talking about his willingness to meet President Rouhani without preconditions—he has said he would meet Rouhani without preconditions many times, so Bolton lost that.

Bolton was in a slow-motion process of losing vis-à-vis Afghanistan, but I think this really indicated that Trump really, really wanted to deal with the Taliban and get the United States out and declare victory. Bolton is a smart guy. He knows it's not a victory, so what choice did he have, being forced to face your own political impotence on these things?

ALEX WOODSON: Trump said a couple of days after the tweet that the talks are dead, the negotiations are dead. Is that true? Is Khalilzad out as the envoy, or is this going to continue on in some form, maybe a little bit under the radar?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: To my knowledge, if you take the question piece by piece—it's a very good question—in the immediate aftermath of this Khalilzad did return to the United States. He had been in Doha. There is no indication that he has been removed from that position or that the position has been eliminated or that his team has been sent home.

We also know that President Trump tweets something on Monday and tweets the opposite on Tuesday and then tweets a third iteration the next day. My guess is even Zalmay Khalilzad isn't quite sure what the president's position is because the president isn't sure himself.

I would be very surprised if these talks don't resume in a quiet way or a non-quiet way and resume in Doha. One of many nice features about Doha—a city I'm fond of in general—is they can either do these things quietly there, or if they want to get a lot of international media, they can do that, too. There's a lot of operational control and advantages that the Qataris can provide in terms of either keeping things quiet or having press there.

The history of the United States and the Taliban is one of almost constant talks. There was a period of a few years when the Taliban had suffered military defeat on the battlefield in which that was much less the case, but for the most part we've been talking to the Taliban for almost 25 years. So, we're going to still talk to them, but I think it will be either when the president issues a contradictory tweet or when the people involved get the sense that it's okay to restart again.

That's the American side. What are the Taliban going to do? Are they just going go think, Well, what are we doing? Why are we even bothering with this when the American president will just say something and blow it all up the next day? I think if the Taliban, who don't have the advantages of a major state intelligence agency and analysts being able to provide reports on the president's thinking and background and history—a probably really tough job for them, too, for those countries—they have less to go on. So, who knows what they will do, and that might explain the recent visit to Moscow.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. I want to talk about that. The Taliban went to Russia I believe last week or over the weekend. What are the Taliban and Russia talking about, and should U.S. national security people be concerned that they're talking in the wake of this news that we just talked about?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: This has not gotten a lot of headlines, but it is a very surprising move because the Taliban historically do not like Russia. In researching my book and reading all of these countless declassified documents that aren't exactly transcripts but transcript-esque, all of the meetings the United States had pre-9/11 with the Taliban almost all start with the Taliban thanking the United States for their support in the jihad against the Soviet Union. There's a lot of pro forma talk about the Soviets and the Russians and how vital the United States was to defeating them, and how every Afghan remembers this, even years later. We're talking about talks just before September 11, more than a decade after the end of that war. The Taliban themselves are talking about it: "We all remember, everyone remembers the U.S. assistance," similar to in Iran, where there's historically not a friendship.

The fact that the Taliban are willing to not only meet with Russians—and they probably met with them over the years, too—but to go to Moscow for talks? It's interesting to me because even terrorist groups, insurgents, and dictators, everyone is impacted by politics. Among the Taliban's constituency you have to wonder how that plays. It's like, "Wait a second. Why are these guys going to Moscow?"

But I think it's probably a strategic move on the Taliban side to show, "Look, the United States is not the only game in town. We're going to talk to any great power that wants to talk to us."

On the Russian side it's pretty clear. The Russians would love to talk to anyone who is sticking it to the Americans, and any way that Russia can assist anyone who—short of killing Americans—is causing us harm in some way, I think they'd be thrilled with.

Ultimately, this is one area where Russia can't replace the United States. Russia could in Syria. They sort of stepped in and started running the show because the Obama administration in my view was too hesitant of getting involved, but we, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—it's not just the United States—is in Afghanistan. Russia is not in Afghanistan. The negotiations ultimately have to be with the United States and/or NATO directly. Those are the only options for the Taliban.

Maybe Russia is encouraging them to wait the United States out, figuring that Trump will leave without reaching a deal, and frankly there's a compelling case to be made for that, too. But it is curious and interesting. I suspect for the Taliban it's about sending a message to the United States rather than any concrete achievements because I don't see what Russia has to offer.

ALEX WOODSON: We're talking about these negotiations and government officials, but there's still the situation going on in Afghanistan. They have been in some state of war for over 40 years. Does the last couple of weeks of events change things for your average Afghan? Does this increase violence on the ground, or are things going to pretty much continue as they have for the last however many years?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I don't see it changing anything in terms of a level of violence necessarily. I think if the Taliban want to respond violently to prove a point to the United States, they're probably aware enough to realize that the targets for a violent escalation would have to be American troops because the current administration doesn't really care about innocent civilians being killed by the Taliban. They barely pay it lip service. I'm talking about in the White House. I think in the military and Defense Department and State Department they actually care much more about this because these are people in many cases who have worked with us for a long time and Americans who have buy-in to this.

I think the Taliban realizes that's not going to change the needle. If they escalate, it will be against U.S. targets there. There may be innocent bystanders to that, but there have been already.

Where I think it might, and where you see at least—I'm not on the ground there—Afghan Twitter feeds and things like that I think have a psychological impact. But on the other hand, there's a lot of trepidation about reaching a deal.

I always hate to say this, but there's not a great outcome here for Afghanistan. There's not a great outcome, at least in the short and medium term. I don't have a tremendous amount of short-and-medium-term hope for some sort of stable and nonviolent Afghanistan that thrives. I do think that's quite possible in the long term, and our continued presence is not going to bring that about.

ALEX WOODSON: Another thing I've seen and that we've talked about in our last couple of podcasts as well is the women's rights aspect of this and education for girls in Afghanistan. That never seemed to really be a big part of these negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, so you can't imagine that will change, either.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: The Afghan government's position has been trying to bring in female voices to this and Afghan civil society groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I think the Afghan government realizes that this is important. Afghanistan is not an egalitarian paradise at the moment, but regardless big progress has been made, especially in Kabul. If the United States withdrew tomorrow, it wouldn't be the next day that everything goes back to 1995.

In fact, the Taliban, if they take a similar—and they are more extreme I think than they were in the 1990s—tactical approach to this, they won't immediately put in these restrictions, and they will be different in rural areas and in Kandahar than in Kabul, but it will be significantly more restrictive than—any Afghan woman under 20 years old, even a little bit older if they were babies in 2001, doesn't even remember this, and they've only heard about it or heard about victims, and this is going to be a tremendous shock, which is why we really have to work to get people out.

Some people will stay. Most people I think will stay because of patriotism and working for their own country, but even at the cost of tremendous brain drain for Afghanistan and setting that country back some, again I think we have a moral and ethical obligation to the people whose lives were made better by the U.S. invasion and occupation to make sure that all of that wasn't for nothing. It's going to have been for nothing in terms of fighting the Taliban, but it doesn't have to be for nothing in terms of helping the Afghan people, and at this point I think we can provide help by helping to resettle people.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to ask one more question to tie together your other interests in international affairs. You mentioned Iran and North Korea in a previous answer in regard to the fact that Trump has negotiated with Kim Jong-un. He's interested—maybe—in negotiating with Iranian President Rouhani.

Part of my thinking is he's been president for over two-and-a-half years at this point. I think someone like Kim Jong-un or Hassan Rouhani kind of knows who this guy is, but did they learn anything new from watching how the Taliban-U.S. negotiations played out?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: That's a very interesting question. I think that Rouhani and Kim Jong-un certainly are paying attention to this in a way that isn't necessarily true in the reverse to the extent—again, in part because they have state apparatus behind them to provide assistance. A lot of the Taliban leadership do speak English, at least historically, and so they can follow the stuff more closely.

I don't know if it is showing them anything they don't already know. It isn't news that Trump is "mercurial," which I feel like has been used in English-language media more in the last three years than probably in all of recorded history but in part because that is the best word, and he could literally do anything.

I think it makes even more clear what they already knew, which is that Trump doesn't care at all about any details, doesn't really understand the details, and really just wants to be able to declare victory and get a good photo op. I think the North Koreans have played that better than anyone because they are able to string him along through love poems and only testing short-range missiles and not intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), even though the technology—some of it—can be used in ICBMs as well, but they've played him really well, and they're going to be able to get either an agreement with the United States that benefits them, or at the very least buy a lot of time to continue developing their own nuclear and nonnuclear programs.

I think Iran in theory would like to get Trump in the room because they figure Trump will back down and give them almost anything, but it's a little bit trickier for Iran than North Korea because domestic politics matter much more in Iran than in North Korea, so Rouhani will pay a political price for meeting with Trump that Kim Jong-un isn't going to pay or hasn't paid.

So, it's a little bit of a trickier calculation. The supreme leader could tell him he has to do it. That's true, but he'll still pay the political price for it. It's a little bit trickier if you're Iran for under what circumstance and what you're asking for from Trump. That's unique to Trump; it's not about the United States. It's because of Trump specifically and because of the Muslim ban and the—correct in my view—perception of Trump has Islamophobic and the connections of some of his advisors to the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) that they're going to be a bit more wary, but it is possibly an opportunity. It's totally plausible to me that Trump would agree to not a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—that's the Iran nuclear deal—not JCPOA-plus, but like a JCPOA-minus, JCPOA plus a photograph and a handshake. That would be the plus.

But I'm not sure if those two learned anything they don't already know from this.

ALEX WOODSON: That's all I have. Those are all my questions. Anything you want to add before we head out?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: No, just that my book The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11, will be out in paperback on October 12th. It's out in hardcover now. It's also at most of the major libraries if it's cost-prohibitive to purchase.

ALEX WOODSON: Great. Thank you so much for coming in. This has been great.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Thanks for having me.

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