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Trump threatens Afghanistan militants after ousting Bolton

Eli Stokols and Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump sought Wednesday to justify his now-scuttled summit with the Taliban while threatening the Afghan militants and other enemies with "power the likes of which the United States has never used before."

The comments, at a Pentagon ceremony commemorating the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, underscored the president's seemingly conflicting inclinations on foreign policy and his tendency to cloak his isolationist, deal-making leanings in bellicose threats.

Coming a day after the departure of national security adviser John Bolton, who often pushed back on the president's ad hoc diplomacy, the president thus made clear he's prepared to push forward on his initiatives in Afghanistan and other global hot spots.

"Trump has made clear that he's his own principal adviser," said David Rothkopf, who wrote a book about the National Security Council. "Right now I wouldn't say there's much of a national security process. And that's dangerous because the president is inexperienced and erratic."

Trump has been willing to meet with adversaries in pursuit of diplomatic deals, or at least a showy and dramatic sort of summitry that captures the world's attention. Since early last year, he often did so against Bolton's advice.

Bolton had opposed Trump's desire to meet with Taliban officials face-to-face at Camp David, and the president later blamed him for leaking stories about division in the White House, specifically a report that Vice President Mike Pence had sided with Bolton, which Pence vehemently denied.

He also opposed a possible meeting between Trump and Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said at the White House that Trump "is prepared to meet with no preconditions."

Iran has said it wouldn't join such talks until the administration eases the sanctions Trump imposed after he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S. and five other countries.

Trump claimed Wednesday that after his proposed summit with the Taliban last weekend had collapsed -- he says he canceled it, but the Taliban said it never planned to come -- the Pentagon and U.S. allies sharply stepped up attacks on the militants.

"The last four days, we have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before. And that will continue."

It couldn't be immediately confirmed whether the pace of U.S and allied attacks had increased dramatically this week. Pompeo said Sunday that allied attacks had killed 1,000 Taliban "in the last 10 weeks," suggesting the war had intensified while peace negotiations were underway.


In addition to advising Afghan forces, U.S. troops conduct air strikes and special operations raids. About 14,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Afghanistan.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon made clear the goal in the increased attacks. The U.S. has been fighting the Taliban for 18 years without eradicating it or forcing its surrender.

By some measures, the Islamist militants control more territory now than at any time since U.S. forces helped push them from power in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

"What is really the objective of redoubled airstrikes?" said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Is it degrading the Taliban or is this a ploy to get them back to the negotiating table?"

Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election Sept. 28, and officials in Kabul have braced for more violence. The Taliban has refused to hold formal talks with the Afghan government, describing it as a puppet regime, and has used car bombs, suicide bombings and other attacks against both civilian and military targets.

Although Trump said he called off U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, pronouncing them "dead" on Monday, it's not clear what alternative he has if he still intends to withdraw a significant number of U.S. troops before the 2020 election.

Luke Coffey, who researches foreign policy issues for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said violence around the Afghan election could be a bellwether for whether the U.S.-Taliban talks can restart soon.

"This latest episode will tell us how committed the Taliban is to a negotiated settlement," he said.

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