While the chaotic drawdown of the war in Afghanistan has taken a toll on President Joe Biden's standing back home, it's also complicated political matters for one prominent Republican with eyes seemingly on the White House.
Few GOP officials have been more intimately involved with U.S.-Afghan relations than Mike Pompeo, who as Secretary of State helped lead negotiations with the Taliban to lead to an end of the 20-year-old war.
With that ending now mired in chaos, Pompeo has rushed to the airwaves to defend his work and differentiate it from the job that the Biden team is doing. Republican strategists say it's no coincidence. Pompeo, they posit, recognizes that his own electoral fate could be directly impacted by how the public perceives the current situation in Kabul.
“Trying to extricate yourself from this withdrawal is I think difficult if not impossible to do, especially to rewrite history about what actually happened,” said former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, a prominent critic of his former boss’ Afghanistan policy. “I think that’s a prescription for Democratic attack ads that would be fatal to someone’s credibility.”
Pompeo has been coy about his own ambitions for 2024, but the former congressman from Kansas, CIA Director, and Secretary of State has been popping up at high profile fundraisers for midterm candidates and rubbing elbows with influential conservatives in critical early-voting states like Iowa. His appeal to voters is due, in part, to the feet he has had in its two most prominent, recent movements: the Tea Party and Trumpism.
But that experience now carries some potential baggage. Pompeo met with the Taliban in February 2020 at the signing of a withdrawal agreement with the U.S. in Doha. A picture of him from that moment, standing alongside Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, has circulated widely online in the last week. It’s the type of image that could dot and complicate future election bids, should he choose to make one.
Pompeo has tried to distance the Trump administration from the current situation in Afghanistan by claiming Biden failed to ensure the Taliban met conditions of the agreement before pulling troops out.
“We always knew that conditions had to be right,” Pompeo said on Fox News. “This administration just willy-nilly whipped the military out of there, leaving civilians, equipment, all of those things behind.”
The negotiations Pompeo helped conduct as secretary of State resulted in a four-part withdrawal deal with the Taliban that committed the U.S. to a phased, conditions-based removal of all troops in a 14-month period. The U.S. called on the Taliban to cut ties with the terrorist organization al-Qaeda and refrain from any threats to the U.S. or allies, but it also made concessions, like the release of 5,000 combat and political Taliban prisoners and a review of sanctions against the organization. The Afghan government was not involved in the negotiations, a move that critics say undermined the country’s leadership and legitimacy.
Those close to Pompeo say he recognized early on that a withdrawal deal could be a political quagmire but that he followed President Donald Trump’s order to get American troops out of Afghanistan immediately.
“He alluded to the fact that he understood he could potentially pay a political price in the future for doing this but in his mind, this is what the president ordered him to do, so he had to get the best deal possible and have the most caveats to keep people there if we need to,” said a former Trump State Department official.
But Pompeo’s involvement in the deal has now drawn criticism from Republicans and has given a preview of how Afghanistan could complicate the political ambitions of those on both sides of the aisle.
“Our secretary of State signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster said of Pompeo on a podcast with Bari Weiss. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn't defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”
A potential 2024 contender, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, also took what gave the appearance of being a subtle swipe at Pompeo, tweeting that negotiating with the Taliban is “like dealing with the devil.” But when asked on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” about his role in drafting the withdrawal, Haley revised her comments.
“There are times when you have to negotiate with the devil, but you negotiate with the devil from a point of strength,” Haley said. “You don't do it from a point of weakness. We literally have no leverage right now with the Taliban.”
Others suggested that former Trump officials, Pompeo chief among them, wouldn’t have to defend the drawdown itself but would have to answer for why the U.S. agreed to the Taliban demands last year that 5,000 prisoners be released ahead of any peace talks.
“The vulnerability for a Republican in a primary won’t come from wanting to withdraw, I think it’s an isolated vulnerability and it's why did they release the prisoners?” said former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “To me that is the flaring issue that could be turned into a vulnerability. But the rest of it — meeting with the Taliban, talking to the Taliban — I don’t think that’s a vulnerability. I think people understand that you should talk.”
Pompeo’s allies say he is not concerned that the attacks on the current Afghanistan withdrawal will boomerang back on him. They point to Pompeo’s media rounds and op-eds that claim the Biden administration failed to adhere to the terms of the withdrawal agreement and did not keep an adequate footprint on the ground in Afghanistan as deterrence to fend off a Taliban takeover.
Pompeo declined to comment on the record. But a person familiar with his thinking took the opportunity to excoriate Bolton.
“John Bolton would be happy if 50 thousand Americans were fighting in Afghanistan for the next 20 years. The President and Secretary of State Pompeo had a plan for an orderly withdrawal for Afghanistan that kept the Taliban in check while reducing our forces while saving American lives,” said the person.
Pompeo has used his recent media appearances as an opportunity to both explain Trump’s withdrawal agreement with the Taliban to the public and to present himself as a leading Republican foreign policy voice in the post-Trump presidency landscape. He did so again on Wednesday night.
And so far, according to recent polls, it is Biden who has borne the brunt of public backlash to the decision as images of mayhem at the Kabul airport and the Taliban takeover have saturated the news. A recent POLITICO poll shows just 25 percent of Americans think the withdrawal is going well, and overall support for taking troops out of Afghanistan has dropped 20 percentage points as the situation on the ground deteriorates. And when residents from the critical presidential primary state of New Hampshire were asked in a University of New Hampshire poll who is to blame for the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Pompeo’s name barely registered while fingers were pointed at the Afghan government, Biden, and his presidential predecessors.
Some Republicans believe that the situation could eventually serve to Pompeo’s advantage, should he continue to aggressively prosecute the case that Biden didn’t execute the drawdown template he inherited.
“It shows he’s a Biden critic and a fighter, because that’s become so important in Republican politics these days, but that also there he is front and center more than anybody backing up Donald Trump,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye of Pompeo’s aggressive public defense of Trump’s policy.
And Trump has taken note. The former president praised Pompeo for his media blitz at a MAGA rally in Culman, Ala., last weekend.
“I’ve been watching Mike Pompeo, secretary of State, he did a great job, he’s going around spreading the word,” Trump said.
Trump himself has been a one-man rapid response team on Afghanistan in recent days. Though he made pulling troops out of Afghanistan a campaign promise and bragged about his plan to withdraw even in his post-presidency, he has called for Biden to resign “in disgrace for what he has allowed to happen to Afghanistan.” All told, he has mentioned Biden and his administration in more than 25 statements on the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the withdrawal in Afghanistan since Aug. 12.
“If I were now President, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal. I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable,” Trump said in a statement last week. “It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that better than anyone.”
While Trump and Pompeo and others in the prior administration have sought to draw distinctions between Biden’s stewardship of Afghanistan and the deal that they cut, other Republicans have simply teed off on Biden. Republicans in Congress have blanketed the airwaves with their critiques, the National Republican Committee blasted out talking points slamming Biden’s decision, and Republican groups like the pro-Trump America First Policy Institute have circulated ads showcasing Biden’s blame casting and mayhem in Kabul.
And on Tuesday, Trump’s Save America PAC released an ad splicing together sound bites of Biden talking about Afghanistan with images of Taliban fighters taking control and mayhem on the ground.
It’s caused a notable dent in Biden’s standing politically. The question now is whether Republicans will stay focused on the current administration, or if some may turn their attention to the past one. Bolton, for one, argued that if Trump had been in office today, he would have made the same choice as Biden.
“The argument is Trump would have retaliated massively,” Bolton said, “yeah, well maybe, maybe not. Trump would have done what he thought would be politically beneficial. And what he thought was politically beneficial was getting out.”
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