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Former Diplomat On Afghanistan Negotiations


The news of the secret and now-canceled meeting between the Taliban and the U.S. sent diplomatic Washington into further confusion. Ambassador James Dobbins was the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014, and he joins me on the line. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ambassador Dobbins, just briefly, what was your reaction to the president's announcement last night?

DOBBINS: Well, I was surprised as anyone, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you explain what that surprise was about?

DOBBINS: Well, first of all, that we were going to hold a meeting in the - at Camp David with the Taliban. That was surprising enough - but then that we canceled the meeting and apparently canceled the negotiations altogether that could've led to the meeting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain for people who may not understand why it is surprising that the Taliban would be coming to Camp David, specifically on a week where we would be commemorating Sept. 11.

DOBBINS: Well, I - yeah, I mean, I think that's a coincidence that may have had some impact and might have contributed to the decision to cancel the meeting. But clearly, we've been in conflict with the Taliban now for going on 18 years and - or a little more than 18 years. And so to have them suddenly appear at Camp David, it would be quite a shock.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess conferring on them some kind of legitimacy that perhaps one would think they don't deserve.

DOBBINS: Well, I mean, some people would take that view. Others, I think, would have welcomed a sign that peace might actually be at hand. So I mean, it would cut both ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Secretary of State Pompeo emphasized a few minutes ago on CNN that the U.S. would hold the Taliban to the promises they make as part of any deal. I guess my question is, how can we hold an armed unelected group to their commitments?

DOBBINS: Well, I mean, the commitments are reciprocal, and so if they don't fulfill their commitments, we don't fulfill ours.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me, as you see it, what this process was about. Do you feel like it might have been doomed from the start, given that the Afghan government was largely excluded?

DOBBINS: Well, what was - what appeared to be at hand was a preliminary agreement which would have set out a timetable for an American withdrawal that would have been conditioned on a peace process among the Afghans. So the intent of the U.S. in negotiating with the Taliban was to open the door to peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and it was expected that those peace talks would start within a week or two. And that's why this is so surprising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a letter you wrote along with eight other former envoys to the region, you expressed real concern about the existing draft deal. You said that it did not create the conditions for peace in Afghanistan, that foreign forces should stay in the country until the government reached an agreement with the Taliban. Is no deal at this point better than a weak deal?

DOBBINS: Well, I - the statement we issued was not a statement criticizing the agreement; it was a statement cautioning about what was to follow from the agreement. So I think we welcomed an agreement which would have led to the beginning of intra-Afghan talks, and we accepted that a partial drawdown of U.S. troops might have been a worth - price worth paying for achieving that breakthrough. But we did caution that the full withdrawal of U.S. forces should not occur until a peace had been both negotiated and fully implemented.

Now, that's not inconsistent with what we know about the agreement that was under negotiation, as far as we know. The timetable for the withdrawal of the residual American force was not specified. If it had been specified, we might have been critical, but we assumed that it wasn't specified.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sir, I must take your temperature on this. Is canceling the deal in this way - via tweet - you know, these things are usually secret. We've known they've been going on for months. But you know, to do it in this manner, is that usual? And also, could it have some real ramifications?

DOBBINS: Well, it's kind of the new normal. As President Trump said himself, apropos of his negotiations with China, this is the way I negotiate, which is abrupt alterations in position, surprising twists and turns and trying to keep his negotiating partner off-balance. So it's characteristic of a style of negotiation that the president has manifested.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ambassador James Dobbins was the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014. Thank you so much.

DOBBINS: My pleasure.

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