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 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.
Coloring 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 fulfill his promise to bring more US soldiers home, but like his predecessors is finding few easy solutions to ending the war.
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 on 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 skepticism, 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.
Striking a deal
The President, who’d grown irritated at the progress of peace talks, believed he was better positioned to strike a deal, according to a person familiar with his thinking. As he has in his diplomatic opening with North Korea, Trump preferred to do the face-to-face talks himself. The dramatic display of talks with sworn US enemies carried a similar made-for-television appeal.
As Trump mulled over the talks, he came up with the idea of hosting the leaders at Camp David, which was seen by multiple advisers, including Pence and Bolton, as a bad idea. Those opposed to the Camp David talks raised concerns with holding the meeting on the week of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, according to the officials.
They advised the President on such, but Trump had become personally attached to the outcome and the logistics of the talks after meeting with top advisers about the Afghan peace process in August.
“The vice president reserves his counsel for the President, and anyone claiming to know his thoughts on the matter aside from the President is mistaken,” a spokesman for the vice president, Darin Miller, said.
Trump was taken with the idea of sealing a landmark peace agreement in one of the most presidential settings, the people familiar with the talks said, who said there was little hope of changing his mind.
Only a small group of advisers were included in the planning for Camp David — and after talks broke down and the historic meeting was scrapped, even fewer were told Trump was going to announce as much on Twitter.
Trump himself decided to cancel the talks on Thursday after the Taliban car bomb, but the plan wasn’t revealed publicly until he announced it on Twitter. Some officials expressed confusion about why the plans needed to be revealed at all.
Afterward, even some Republicans appeared aghast that Trump had considered using the mountainside presidential getaway to host the Taliban on the same week the country marks the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which spurred the war in Afghanistan.
“Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever,” wrote Rep. Liz Cheney on Twitter. She said Trump made the right decision to call off the talks.
Appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, Pompeo alluded to a debate within the administration about using the retreat for the talks, but said Trump ultimately decided it would be an appropriate venue.
“We all considered as we were debating how to try and get to the right ultimate outcome. While there have often been discussions about war at Camp David, there have been discussions about peace there as well,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “There have been some pretty bad actors travel through that place throughout recorded history. It’s an important place.”
Now, the status of the Taliban talks remains unclear. Despite Trump saying in his tweet Saturday that peace negotiations are called off, new dates are currently being discussed by the White House for a future potential meeting with the US, the Taliban and the Afghan government, a source familiar with the matter said. It’s unclear if the Taliban will have to make hard and fast commitments before the meeting.
“We’re going to walk away from a deal if others try to use violence to achieve better ends in the negotiations,” Pompeo said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s not right. It’s not appropriate. It killed an American. And it made no sense for the Taliban to be rewarded for that kind of bad behavior.”