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Afghan Peace Process 'Dead.' Bolton Fired. As Dust Settles In D.C., What Now?

President Trump, seen speaking to reporters at the White House on Monday, has fired his national security adviser. With John Bolton gone, what does that mean for Afghanistan peace talks and other major foreign policy?
Win McNamee
Getty Images
President Trump, seen speaking to reporters at the White House on Monday, has fired his national security adviser. With John Bolton gone, what does that mean for Afghanistan peace talks and other major foreign policy?

President Trump spiked the peace negotiations for a war he's desperate to end and sacked the national security adviser who shaped much of his foreign policy in Asia and the Middle East.

Where does the Trump administration's foreign policy go from here?

Until Saturday, one path, at least, appeared clear: Washington was inching closer to some kind of agreement with the Taliban to end the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, though his administration was taking a tough official line against Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Russia — it was sometimes accompanied by a soft semiofficial line taken by Trump himself.

Then Trump announced Saturday he was canceling a summit he'd planned to convene secretly at Camp David with Afghan government and Taliban leaders, and he proclaimed Monday that he considered peace talks to be "dead."

That night, Trump talked with national security adviser John Bolton in an exchange that Bolton said resulted in him offering his resignation. Trump says he asked Bolton to quit.

Effect on policy

Bolton became the latest top official to be terminated in a presidential tweet over a disagreement with the principal, with uncertain consequences for the conduct of a major American policy.

In the past, these kinds of resignations have resulted in pyrrhic victories for those involved.

When then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-envoy Brett McGurk resigned at the end of 2018 rather than go along with Trump's planned withdrawal from Syria, they appeared to stay the administration's hand from the full military pullout Trump had contemplated.

One question now is how long Bolton's policy, without Bolton himself, will endure within the administration.

Trump has desired for years to cut bait on the war in Afghanistan and he seems unlikely to leave peace talks dormant for long. The special envoy who's been carrying on the negotiations with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, appears to be staying on in his administration job.

Factors beyond Bolton

But the timing of when talks could resume and when they might show results is important, and all that has been cast into doubt.

One reason is Afghanistan's presidential election scheduled for this month.

President Ashraf Ghani is considered a favorite to secure another term, but the Taliban accuse his government of being stooges for the Americans. The closer that election comes, the likelier there could be violence that further delays the resumption of negotiations.

A Taliban attack that resulted in the death of an American service member was the reason Trump gave for abrogating negotiations, although they may have begun to founder before his surprise announcement on Saturday.

Another factor is the American presidential election next year.

Trump supports withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He has long been dubious of the establishment consensus on how to preserve stability there, and the objections of hawks who say Washington must persevere until a final victory.

Trump went down that route with Mattis — for a time.

He agreed to an increase in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, curtailed much of the public reporting about the conflict and kiboshed any talk about timetables for the end of the war.

Then the president apparently ran out of patience, and he has made clear he doesn't care for American deployments to continue in their current form any longer than he can manage.

Bolton's ouster removes an internal skeptic about that approach, and whoever Trump names as his replacement will need to be on board the current program.

But with the diplomatic track toward an endgame in Afghanistan derailed, there's also no telling what the next phase could look like.

Also unresolved: Iran, North Korea

Bolton's defenestration also scrambles the outlook for other tough areas of foreign and national security policy.

Bolton helped write the playbook that Trump and his advisers used to abrogate America's participation in the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by then-President Barack Obama.

What followed was the campaign of "maximum pressure" on Tehran that brought it to the brink of a flashpoint with the U.S. and other world powers over oil and other sanctions.

Now Trump is airing his willingness to talk with Iran.

He gave his assent to some initial forays by France's President Emmanuel Macron, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated on Tuesday that Trump is prepared to meet with Iran's president "with no preconditions."

With Bolton gone, is that now more likely?

Another unresolved line of effort is that toward North Korea. Trump loves kvelling about the warm relationship he says he's developed with strongman Kim Jong Un, including through the " beautiful letters" that arrive at the White House from Pyongyang.

That relationship so far hasn't yielded a lasting agreement in which North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief or other normalization of its relationship with the world.

One reason it hasn't was Bolton, who held out for more concessions from the North. Kim's regime criticized both him and Trump's most enduring foreign policy lieutenant, Pompeo, at one point asking for the secretary of state to be replaced as their interlocutor on the American side in order to continue talks.

Trump has said, in so many words, that everything is fine with North Korea — the regime's periodic regional missile tests don't bother him so long as it doesn't fire weapons that can threaten the United States or test another nuclear weapon.

With Bolton gone, is Trump that much likelier to agree to another summit with Kim, and then to some kind of new agreement with North Korea?

U.S. intelligence officials have said they don't believe Kim would ever give up his strategic weapons program because he views it as essential to his regime's survival.

"Excellent news"

Some arms control advocates, however, hailed Bolton's departure because they said it means improved odds for new treaties with Russia.

The United States has let one major nuclear agreement lapse with Russia — the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty — and the New START agreement is up for negotiation in 2021.

If Bolton's departure makes it likelier that Trump would agree to extend it, that's "excellent news," the Union of Concerned Scientists said on Tuesday.

For every issue, a take — but the bottom line was expressed by Pompeo on Tuesday at a White House briefing that originally was to have included Bolton. The secretary of state told reporters that the only person who determines who works for Trump, and what that means for the policy of the United States, is Trump.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
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