In Afghan exit, Trump looks to declare victory
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President Donald Trump is often criticized as a bull in a china shop when it comes to foreign policy, but the US deal with the Taliban will let him declare victory on a key election promise.
“The credit goes to the president,” a senior administration official told reporters this month, ahead of the announcement Friday of a partial truce and plans for subsequent inter-Afghan peace talks and a US troop withdrawal.
There is strong support in the United States for an exit from Afghanistan after nearly two bloody decades that left the Taliban nowhere near defeat and US forces exposed to seemingly pointless casualties.
Critics say that an end to the war launched in 2001 would come despite, rather than because of, Trump’s often erratic policy making.
But supporters and the president himself will make a strong case ahead of the November election that he has delivered on his core promise of ending an unpopular foreign entanglement.
“Even if not genuine, the president will call this a victory and withdraw some US troops to show he is a winner and his base will clap,” said Robert Guttman, a government professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Just as he has done at home, the Republican leader has sought to disrupt or simply tear up the status quo on the international scene.
He has heaped scorn on America’s deepest alliances with the Europeans and NATO. He has praised US rivals and foes in Russia and China.
And with all the boldness and razzmatazz of his New York real estate days, he has sought to pull off diplomatic deals that his predecessors found impossible—with decidedly mixed success.
Trump apparently thought his personal touch could unlock the nuclear standoff with North Korea, but three meetings with dictator Kim Jong Un barely moved the needle.
He thought a campaign of “maximum pressure” could make Iran desperate to negotiate, crippling the economy with sanctions, withdrawing from a huge international deal on managing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and even ordering the killing of the country’s most influential military leader.
But there too, the standoff continues.
A promise to end America’s “stupid, endless wars” has also seen turmoil.
A small deployment in Syria was ordered out, only to be left in, while rocking the fragile balance of power in a way that hugely benefited the Syrian government and its chief backer Russia.
In Iran, Trump has publicly wavered, at one point saying he sent bomber planes only to call them back at the last moment.
But in Afghanistan, he may have found his mark.
Devil in details
The announcement of a deal by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban is a milestone. A one-week truce is to be followed by a signing on February 29 in Doha to set the conditions for a broader peace process and US pullout.
The potential for things to go wrong remains—in part due to Trump’s unpredictable nature.
It was just last September that Trump astonished many in Washington and around the world by tweeting that he’d invited the Taliban to the US presidential retreat at Camp David, but then canceled the extraordinary meeting.
News of the failed Camp David gambit outraged many in Washington, who saw Trump trying to set up a PR coup, using America’s deadly enemies as props.
Officials say Trump’s abrupt decision to temporarily kill the negotiations was in fact what persuaded the Taliban that they’d need to work harder to persuade the US side of their seriousness.
“It was President Trump’s tweet and the subsequent standard he took,” the administration official said. “That’s my explanation for why we’ve done what we’ve done.”
Guttman said: “With Trump, nothing is also never certain and also not ever 100 percent true.”
But he has a good story to tell on the re-election trail.
“Trump will call it great win and a foreign policy great deal no one else could have done except for himself,” Guttman said.