WASHINGTON – While President Donald Trump remains fixated on the widening coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Kabul two weeks ago with a harsh message from his boss to try to save one of the only major foreign policy achievements he has after more than three years in the White House: a peace deal in Afghanistan.
Pompeo delivered a message from Trump to the feuding leadership of the Afghan government, telling them they should resolve their differences and broker a deal with the Taliban or the president could not only cut $1 billion in financial aid to Afghanistan but also could pull all U.S. troops out of the country, according to two current senior officials, one former senior official and a foreign diplomat.
The previously unreported troop withdrawal threat underscores Trump’s growing concern that the inability of Afghan leaders to form a unified government threatens to unravel his already-tenuous peace deal with the Taliban, which is the first step toward ending America’s longest war. Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were supposed to follow on March 10, but divisions in Kabul have delayed the effort.
Washington and its allies fear the absence of those talks will scuttle the peace deal, and that the Taliban will take advantage of the internal divisions in Kabul to bolster their position at the negotiating table and on the battlefield, officials said.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Officials said the impasse in Kabul has frustrated Trump, who has hoped to highlight an Afghanistan peace deal as an example of a 2016 campaign promise he kept when he faces voters this November. Before the coronavirus pandemic became a myopic focus for the president, Trump had privately pushed aides to come up with a high-profile way for him to showcase the deal that could end the war and even mused that it should win him a Nobel Peace Prize, according to two current and two former senior U.S. officials familiar with the president's comments.
But even then, a senior administration official said, some of the president’s advisers were “telling him that this is a slow, winding and ugly road” and he does not want to be the face of the fragile deal.
Trump personally signed off on the new hardline message during a meeting with Pompeo before the latter arrived in Kabul on March 23, officials said.
The secretary of state delivered the message in small meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, who are trying to stand up parallel governments. In February, Ghani was declared the winner of the September election, but Abdullah disputed the results, claiming widespread fraud. Both men now claim the right to lead Afghanistan and even held separate, simultaneous inaugurations in Kabul on March 9.
Pompeo told Abdullah that he must support Ghani, according to officials. He said the president expects “one team, one fight” out of Kabul, according to the former senior U.S. official. Pompeo also said Ghani and Abdullah would be held responsible if the president’s peace deal fails, and noted that Trump has followed through on other threats to withdraw troops and pull financial aid.
A senior administration official said the White House is “hopeful” the president’s message that Pompeo delivered is effective.
But the two Afghan political rivals remain locked in a feud and have refused Washington’s suggestions for a possible compromise, according to a U.S. official and a foreign diplomat from the region. Afghan officials and the Taliban also have struggled to agree on the release of prisoners from both sides.
Last Tuesday, Pompeo said there has been some progress in Kabul since his visit, particularly on the formation of a team to negotiate with the Taliban and on the planned release of prisoners.
“So it’s good news,” he said.
On March 27, Ghani announced a 21-member delegation to negotiate with the Taliban. But the Taliban rejected the team. And after denouncing it as not inclusive, Abdullah on Tuesday embraced the team as “an important step toward facilitating intra-Afghan negotiations."
“Although we have reached no satisfactory agreement to resolve the political crisis in the wake of the rigged presidential election, we are committed to making sure that it does not overshadow peace efforts,” Abdullah wrote on Twitter.
Yet, a U.S. official briefed on the Afghan political discussions said, “It looks like they are still far apart.”
The National Security Council declined to comment. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Officials said the president’s expectations have been tempered in the weeks since the deal was signed.
At one point, Trump suggested to aides a possible rally with U.S. troops to mark the beginning of the drawdown, officials said, but the idea never gained traction.
“He likes the pomp and circumstance,“ a senior administration official said. But some officials disagreed, with another senior administration official saying a troop rally would have been “tone deaf” because “Afghanistan is still a very volatile place.”
The officials said Trump began talking about a Nobel Prize before a deal was even reached. His mentions of it picked up after a deal was reached in January. In one Oval Office meeting at the time, Trump complained that he hasn’t been awarded a Nobel Prize yet, and said if he’s not given one for ending the war in Afghanistan then the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s process is rigged, according to officials.
The Afghanistan peace deal joins a list of efforts for which the president has publicly said he should receive a Nobel Peace Prize. He’s pointed to his North Korea diplomacy, an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, his Syria policy and even a peace agreement in Africa that the U.S. had a minimal role in brokering.
The deal with the Taliban was different, officials said, because it was seen as having more potential for success than other initiatives, such as the denuclearization of North Korea.
Trump spoke with the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on the phone last month, which one senior administration official said was a “good will” step to encourage the Taliban to adhere to the deal.
His dispatching of Pompeo to Kabul to deliver blunt threats is seen as a sign of how much the president wants the deal to succeed.
Pompeo said in a statement two weeks ago that the U.S. was “disappointed” in Ghani and Abdullah and that “their failure has harmed U.S.-Afghan relations.”
His threat to cut $1 billion in aid if the Afghan leaders couldn’t reach a governing agreement would essentially mean cutting the lifeline for the Afghan government’s security forces. Pompeo also said he told the Afghan leaders that plans under the administration’s deal with the Taliban to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 in coming months would continue.
That drawdown began in early March. Several weeks later, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced a 60-day freeze on all Department of Defense personnel movements from overseas, but troops coming back from Afghanistan are exempt from the order.