On Jan. 17, President Donald Trump tweeted: “No ‘Cave’ on the issue of Border and National Security.” Eight days later, he caved, agreeing to reopen the government for three weeks without getting a penny for his border wall. His right-wing allies are spluttering in rage, but they shouldn’t be surprised. This debacle confirms that Trump is not the “ultimate negotiator” he purports to be. He is, in fact, a lousy negotiator. Now he may be on the verge of concluding the worst deals of the century by pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea and Afghanistan in return for empty promises from Kim Jong Un and the Taliban.
Trump is preparing for a second summit at the end of February with Kim even though the North Korean dictator continues to expand, rather than dismantle, his nuclear and missile programs. In his New Year’s address, Kim demanded substantial concessions before he would begin to make good on his vague promises of denuclearization made at the June 12, 2018, Singapore summit. He wants a relaxation of sanctions, an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a peace declaration ending the Korean War and the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from the region.
National security adviser John Bolton, supposedly a hard-liner, just signaled that the administration may give North Korea what it wants. He told the Washington Times, in an interview published Friday, that “what we need from North Korea is a significant sign of a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons, and it is when we get that denuclearization that the president can begin to take the sanctions off.” So much for the administration’s previous position that the United States would not relax sanctions until North Korea agreed to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” Bolton is signaling that in exchange for some “significant sign,” perhaps such as dismantling the antiquated Yongbyon nuclear reactor, Washington might grant North Korea sanctions relief and a peace declaration, even if the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal remained intact.
Given that Seoul and Washington are currently deadlocked over the terms of an agreement to retain U.S. troops in South Korea - Trump initially wanted South Korea to nearly double its financial contribution, to $1.6 billion - it’s not hard to imagine the president using an empty agreement with North Korea as an excuse to begin pulling the troops out. Combined with a peace declaration and a relaxation of sanctions, this could effectively leave Japan and South Korea to confront the North Korean nuclear threat on their own.
Trump is even more eager to leave Afghanistan, which, unlike South Korea, could not survive on its own. He has reportedly asked for the withdrawal of 7,000 of the 14,000 U.S. troops, and his peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, is hard at work on a peace treaty that could remove all of them before the 2020 election. News reports indicate that Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban in Qatar have made important progress. The Taliban are said to have agreed that they would not allow their country to be used as a base for international terrorism. The Wall Street Journal hails this as a “landmark concession,” but The New York Times is closer to the mark in noting that “the United States seemed to be making concrete concessions in exchange for Taliban commitments that would be hard to enforce once American forces leave the country.”
This has the whiff of Vietnam about it. In 1973, the United States and North Vietnam agreed, in the Paris Peace Accords, to “end” their war. Washington pulled out its troops, and Hanoi agreed to return U.S. prisoners of war. President Richard Nixon hailed this as “peace with honor,” but there was no peace and no honor. North Vietnam immediately resumed attacking South Vietnam, and, with no more U.S. military protection, Saigon fell two years later.
The same thing would almost surely happen in Afghanistan if U.S. troops withdrew. Even with U.S. military assistance, the democratically elected government in Kabul is losing ground against the Taliban. The government controls only a little more than half the country’s districts, and it is suffering heavy casualties, with President Ashraf Ghani admitting that more than 45,000 security personnel have been killed since 2014.
If U.S. troops pulled out, while Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, the insurgents could march into Kabul. And if the victorious Taliban reneged on their pledge to break with international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, what would we do about it? Presumably launch more cruise missiles of the kind that proved so ineffectual in 1998. If the pro-Western regime fell, the United States would be devoid of allies on the ground to fight the terrorists - and, in any case, there would be no appetite in the United States for a resumption of our longest war.
The surest way for the Taliban to achieve its objectives would be to agree to whatever conditions the United States demands for a troop withdrawal, knowing that, once the troops are gone, it would not be bound by mere pieces of paper. Likewise, Kim could vastly expand his power if he tricks the United States into withdrawing its forces from South Korea. The Taliban and the North Koreans may have just found the perfect patsy in Trump. Now that he has failed to build his wall, he will be even more desperate for a foreign policy “win.” If I were a South Korean or an Afghan, I would be worried about being abandoned.
Max Boot is a columnist with The Washington Post.