President Donald Trump told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in an interview Monday evening that the United States would maintain a “strong intelligence” presence in Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of troops from the country. Trump said his preference is to “get out of Afghanistan,” but added that the absence of a U.S. intelligence presence in the country, which he described as the “Harvard of terrorists,” could elevate the terror threat to the United States.
Trump’s new comments on Afghanistan—made in an interview recorded over the weekend, but broadcast this evening on Fox News—come amid the latest round of direct talks between Washington and the Afghan Taliban insurgent group in the Qatari capital of Doha. The dialogue appears to have been extended for an additional day into Tuesday, even as an attack by the Afghan Taliban on a logistics facility in Kabul claimed the lives of dozens of civilians.
There are conflicting indications regarding the progress of the U.S.-Taliban talks. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Trump administration seeks a peace deal with the Taliban by September 1. And press reports suggested that this round of talks was focused on a withdrawal timetable. The announcement, according to the spokesman of the Afghan Taliban’s diplomatic office Sohail Shaheen, would “automatically” pave the way for a formal intra-Afghan dialogue. Such a format could include the present government in Kabul in a non-official capacity.
Washington has predicated a final agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban with an intra-Afghan agreement that includes the current government in Kabul. However, the Taliban refuse to engage the Ashraf Ghani government, at least before a preliminary agreement with the United States. On the other hand, an intra-Afghan dialogue is scheduled for next week in Doha—just weeks after the visits of Afghan opposition leaders and Ghani to Pakistan, a key player in the Afghanistan endgame.
Trump’s comments on a residual U.S. intelligence presence may further complicate the ongoing talks with the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban have made clear that they will not accept even a modest U.S. military and intelligence presence in their country.
But, as U.S.-Taliban talks have progressed since last year, American military officials have raised growing alarm over the threat of the local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State organization or ISIS. And now they even speak of the Afghan Taliban as a potential partner for the U.S. in the war against ISIS.
Amid the fog of war, what is clear is that bringing an end to America’s longest war is tougher than continuing the conflict indefinitely.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.