President Donald Trump’s phone call with Taliban leaders last week was profound and unprecedented in the long timeline that makes up America’s longest war.
For some in American national security and diplomatic circles, it was a climax in a frustrating, years-long peace process. For others, it was also a worrisome event—not because of what Trump said but because of who, exactly, he spoke with. Some of the Taliban leaders on the other end of the line were also on secret U.S. kill-or-capture lists. The commander in chief was chatting with people his government officially still wanted jailed or dead, two Defense Department sources told The Daily Beast.
Of course, any peace initiative is going to require talking with one’s enemies—and this call was no exception. But some U.S. defense officials insisted that this was a step too far, and a sign of what they see as a slapdash approach to ending America’s involvement in the Afghan conflict.
It’s the latest indication that Trump, who has long wanted out of Afghanistan, is far apart from the Pentagon on how to wind down the U.S. military’s longest foreign war. Military anxieties are understandable. The U.S. is, for the first time, taking a gamble on negotiating an endgame with an enemy it doesn’t trust and which has all the leverage in the negotiations. A pre-deal ceasefire already broke down on Wednesday, five days after the deal was unveiled, when the U.S. bombed a Taliban position in Helmand to disrupt an attack by the militant group on a checkpoint run by Afghan security forces.
NBC News reported late last week that there is “persuasive intelligence” that the Taliban has no intention of abiding by the deal.
But military concerns go beyond whether the other side in the conflict is trustworthy; there are also concerns about the American side of the equation. Four Trump administration officials, two who are generally supportive of the plan for pulling out troops and two who aren’t—the withdrawals began on Monday—told The Daily Beast that the administration did not have a clear plan for doing so. The call is just one indicator among many.
“It’s ground-shaking that the president spoke to individuals on a target list,” said a senior Defense Department official. “It was a big give from our side, towards an adversary that traditionally has never held up their side of the bargain in numerous other attempts towards de-escalation and peace. We made a group that lacks absolute operational control over their forces a legitimate player on the world stage.”
The target lists, known as Joint Priority Engagement Lists, are said to be held by the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command, according to two U.S. Defense Department sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose such matters.
U.S. military and intelligence officials The Daily Beast spoke to said that whenever they receive information through any kind of intelligence, the information is forwarded on to the agency that controls the list for further analysis. If the information is found credible, then someone like Amir Khan Muttaqi, who listened in on the call with Trump and who was wounded in a July 2018 airstrike in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan, could have several military or intelligence operations built around them for their ultimate capture or death.
The Central Intelligence Agency referred questions to the National Security Council, which did not respond. The White House also did not respond. The Pentagon did not return requests for comment, but after this story published, provided a statement: “After 18 years of war it is clear that peace in Afghanistan will not come through military means. It will come when Afghans come to the table to talk with one another and decide their future together.”
Trump praised the phone call he had with Mullah Adbul Ghani Baradar—who is also on one of the targeting lists. Baradar, who was formerly held in a Pakistani prison, is a co-founder of the Taliban and the head of its political office in Qatar.
“We had a very good conversation with the leader of the Taliban today, and they’re looking to get this ended, and we’re looking to get it ended. I think we all have a very common interest,” said Trump. “We had, actually, a very good talk with the leader of the Taliban.”
Trump is said to be planning a meeting with Taliban leaders in the near future, an intention the president promised at the White House this past Saturday, but no date has been set. In September, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David after a string of bombings that killed multiple Afghan people and an American soldier.
“What he doesn’t understand is that the president’s decision to speak directly to Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban political leaders was seen by the Taliban as a form of legitimization,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor of the Long War Journal, a project under the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It raises their so-called Islamic emirate to the status of a political peer of the United States. And the Taliban trumpeted this phone call all across their media in multiple languages, specifically for that purpose.”
Annie Pforzheimer—a former deputy chief of mission in Kabul, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies—agreed. “It’s close and it is more than I think the Taliban deserve,” said Pforzheimer. Of course, there are “people”—often, very dangerous people—“you must deal with in order to end the violence.” But those people don’t have to get access to the commander in chief. “That’s something where you could hold your president and your secretary in reserve [during negotiations], for a later point when more has been achieved… It’s a tool that a negotiator, in my opinion, should have been allowed to leave for much later in the process.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have openly questioned the administration’s deal, calling for increased transparency into discussions that led to the agreement. Two sources on the Hill told The Daily Beast that lawmakers are interested in scrutinizing communications, including those between the State Department and White House, about the agreement.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast before publication.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) wrote on Twitter late Monday: “I got a classified briefing today on the agreement with the Taliban. I have been a supporter of negotiations with the Taliban, but the more I learn, the more concerned I become that Trump got fleeced. ... The Taliban's security guarantees are so vague as to be effectively void.”
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are preparing to hold hearings on the agreement. It is not yet clear exactly what the two committees will focus on.
Some lawmakers who this week studied the classified annexes to the deal walked away from the review worried about the agreement and the administration’s ability to enforce the deal.
Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the top Republicans in the House, said in a statement Feb. 29 that the deal “includes concessions that could threaten the security of the United States.” In a hearing Tuesday, Cheney said the annexes did not detail mechanisms that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said would be included in the deal. Pompeo has previously said the agreement would include a mechanism to ensure that the Taliban upheld its end of the deal and that the group would renounce al Qaeda.
“What we have seen with this agreement now concerns me as much as the Iranian nuclear deal did, now that I have seen the documents and now that there seems to be still no verification mechanism by which we are going to enforce any of the so-called Taliban promises,” Cheney said.
But with the November presidential election looming, it’s no surprise that the president has been such a public booster of the deal. For Trump, it’s an objective that he holds as a highly political conviction.
For at least the past two years, the president has regularly told, or angrily demanded of administration officials that he wants “the hell out” of Afghanistan before the end of his first term, according to those close to Trump. In the time since the Taliban deal was publicly announced, the president has repeatedly told close advisers, at times using the same phrasing, he wants it “done before November”—a clear reference to Election Day and signaling that he wants to run on the accomplishment of ending America’s longest war—two people with direct knowledge tell The Daily Beast.
But the agreement signed by the United States and the Taliban on Feb. 29 in Doha, Qatar, has already begun to show signs of buckling in the region as members of the militant group have restarted offensive operations as of last week.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected a provision in the agreement between the United States and the Taliban that calls for the release of 5,000 prisoners, which is a condition for further intra-Afghan negotiations scheduled for March 10 in Oslo, Norway. Pompeo brushed off the Afghan president’s rebuke of the clause on CBS’ Face the Nation: “There have been prisoner releases from both sides before. We’ve managed to figure our path forward.”
“Boy, how the tune has changed,” said retired Marine Col. David Lapan, a former Homeland Security and Pentagon spokesman who’s now a Trump administration critic. “This is the same Pompeo who criticized Obama’s administration for swapping five Taliban militants for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Now we are talking five times a thousand and all of a sudden, it’s OK.”
When discussing the potential for the Taliban not honoring the deal or the possible dangers and uncertainty ahead, one of the sources with direct knowledge recalled Trump cutting off a recent conversation on the matter and immediately stressing, among other things, that “the American people, Republicans and Democrats” want U.S. troops out and that “you can look at any poll” and see that.
It was unclear to what polling, public or internal, the president was referring. However, according to a source familiar with the matter, a paper that has circulated among the upper ranks of the White House since 2017 consisted of research demonstrating that Trump did better in the 2016 election in areas of the U.S. that suffered higher Iraq and Afghan war casualty rates. The authors of that paper, professors Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen, even wrote in an August 2017 piece for Politico that “for all his lofty rhetoric, Trump might come to regret this decision [to order a troop surge in Afghanistan]. In a recently released research paper… [what] we found was a significant correlation between war casualty rates and Trump votes. In fact, we think three states key to Trump’s victory—Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—might have swung the other way if they’d had even modestly lower” casualty rates.
“The vast majority of the American people—including the majority of veterans of the recent wars—support bringing our troops home from Afghanistan,” said Dan Caldwell, foreign policy campaign manager for Stand Together, a new name for the Koch network’s policy advocacy group. “Withdrawing all our troops is not only good policy, but it is a good political move for President Trump. He should follow through with a withdrawal from Afghanistan even if the Taliban and Afghan government can’t work out a deal.”