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Trump officials back away from 2020 Taliban peace deal after withdrawal chaos

A number of former senior Trump officials have sought to distance themselves from the Taliban peace deal that his administration signed in February 2020, with chaos erupting after the militants took control of Afghanistan this week.

Why it matters: The agreement has come under new scrutiny for laying the groundwork for the U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan, which coincided with a sweeping Taliban offensive that ended in the fall of Kabul on Sunday.

The big picture: The Trump administration agreed to withdraw from the country by May 1, 2021, if the Taliban negotiated a peace agreement with the Afghan government and promised to prevent terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State from gaining a foothold.

  • Biden said he had to follow through with the agreement or risk new conflicts with the Taliban in the spring, which might have required an additional troop surge into Afghanistan. However, it's clear by his decision to push back the withdrawal date to Aug. 31 that Biden had the ability to refashion some parameters of the agreement.
  • Biden blamed theTrump administration this week for the chaos in Afghanistan, saying the former president emboldened the Taliban and left the insurgency group "in the strongest position militarily since 2001."
  • Biden acknowledged, however, that he ultimately would have tried to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan even if Trump had not struck a deal with the Taliban, and that he saw no way to complete a withdrawal "without chaos ensuing."

What they're saying

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who resigned from the Trump administration before the agreement was finalized, tweeted Wednesday: "Negotiating with the Taliban is like dealing with the devil."

Former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller told Defense One this week that Trump's agreement was actually a "play" to mask his administration's true intentions, which were to broker a Taliban-led government that would allow a small number of U.S. forces to remain in country to conduct counterterrorism missions.

  • Miller's claims comes despite Trump repeatedly publicly revealing his desire to end the Afghanistan War and his significant troop reductions in the final months of his administration.

Lisa Curtis, a former senior NSC official who sat alongside Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad during the negotiations with the Taliban, told AP: "The Doha agreement was a very weak agreement, and the U.S. should have gained more concessions from the Taliban."

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was fired by Trump in November 2020, said he believed at the time the agreement was signed that it should have been "conditions-based," which is in part why he later objected to Trump's call for a Christmas homecoming for U.S. troops.

  • Esper told CNN that although Biden is responsible for the outcome in Afghanistan, Trump "undermined" the agreement and weakened U.S. leverage in negotiations by impatiently calling for troop reductions in the country.

John Bolton and H.R. McMaster, two former Trump national security advisers known for their hawkish views, have lambasted both Trump and Biden for the withdrawal — though both have long been critical of the Taliban agreement.

  • "Our secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban," McMaster told Bari Weiss' podcast. "This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves."
  • Bolton told CNN: "Had Trump been re-elected, he’d be doing the same thing. On this question of withdrawal from Afghanistan, Trump and Biden are like Tweedledee and Tweedledum."

The other side: Pompeo, the only U.S. secretary of state to meet with Taliban officials in person while at the signing ceremony of the agreement in Doha in September 2020, told Fox News he does not believe the negotiations legitimized the Taliban and that the Trump administration never trusted the group to begin with.

  • Pompeo also insisted the agreement was conditions-based and that the Trump administration would have retaliated against the militant group if it did not follow through with its guarantees.
  • However, Trump in October 2020 had been calling for all troops to be home by Christmas that year. Violence in the country, primarily from improvised explosive devices, had already started surging the last few months of the Trump administration, according to the United Nations.

Go deeper: The cases for and against Biden's key decisions on Afghanistan

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