Will Trump Have Enough Patience To Deal w/the Taliban?

The Patient War

What awaits Trump in Afghanistan

Haji Din Mohammed met with the Taliban for the first time on the public record on July 7, 2015, in the town of Murree, Pakistan, just outside Islamabad. It was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. After sunset, he and his colleagues — delegates from the High Peace Council, the Afghan government’s official negotiating body — sat down for a customary iftar dinner at their hotel before heading over to a nearby golf resort.

Din Mohammed, who is in his early sixties, has a white beard and rheumy eyes. That evening, he wore a lungi, a turban that indicated his elite social status, and a shalwar kameez, an elegant tunic and trousers. He and his delegation were ushered into a sparsely appointed room and seated along one side of a long table. Facing them were three Taliban envoys. On their left were the Pakistani hosts; on their right, three observers from the United States and China. For this historic occasion, the resort served milk tea and summer fruit. Like most Afghans, Din Mohammed prefers green tea, considering the Pakistani variety too sweet, so his cup went untouched.

Rubble at the site of a truck bombing in eastern Kabul, August 7, 2015. The blast killed at least fifteen and injured hundreds of civilians; the target was believed to be a nearby military base. Two more major attacks occurred in the Afghan capital over the next twenty-four hours © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Redux

It was already ten in the evening when the discussion began, though in a sense the participants had been waiting fourteen years, as no one could agree on who was fighting whom. The Afghan government viewed the enduring conflict within its borders as an undeclared war between Afghanistan and Pakistan; Pakistan saw it through the prism of a threat from India; the Taliban were resisting American intervention; America was battling Al Qaeda.

That night, the aim was modest: set an agenda for a follow-up meeting. The group eased in with niceties, as some of the adversaries on either side of the table had once been allies and neighbors. Din Mohammed was the first to address the room. He took inventory of the advances that Afghanistan had made over the past decade: the improvements to education, health care, and the national economy. Then he made his case for ending the war. A death is a death is a death, he said. If friendly forces were murdered, the deaths were mourned, and when Taliban fighters were killed, he insisted, “We cry for them too.” He went on, “War will destroy you. War will destroy us all.”

But the dialogue soon buckled. The Taliban emissaries seemed to have “arrived already angry,” Din Mohammed said when he recounted the meeting to me. Abdul Latif Mansour, a member of the Taliban delegation, told the Americans, his temper rising, “We had our own government, but you pushed us out.” Then he erupted at the High Peace Council. “You let them do night raids. You are nothing! We should be leading the country, not you. We are not tired. We can continue fighting for longer!” This was not an idle threat: The Taliban have an operating budget of around $500 million for some 30,000 fighters. It’s not much compared with the $3 billion that the U.S. Department of Defense will spend in 2017 on the 352,000-strong Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, but the group’s benefactors are unhindered by a legislature or recalcitrant public, and a steady stream of money comes in from drug revenues and zakat (religious taxes). Anatol Lieven, a global-terrorism scholar based at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar, told me, “They can outlast us all.”

Din Mohammed called for a tea break. During the recess, he urged his delegation to stay focused: this was their opportunity to engage, and all they needed was a plan for the next talk. The alternative, he reminded them, was unceasing violence.

When everyone returned to the table, the Taliban negotiators were noticeably less acerbic, more deferential, addressing Din Mohammed with the honorific “mujahed.” The group worked steadily into the night, forgoing the resort’s offer of a breakfast at two-thirty in the morning — the last victual before resuming the fast — so they could keep talking. A few hours before sunrise, they bade one another farewell, promising to meet again at the end of the month.

The following week, Din Mohammed flew from Kabul, where his office is based, to Mecca, to build goodwill with other Taliban representatives. He was told that senior Taliban officials approved of the peace meetings, and returned home glowing with optimism. Days later, the annual Eid al-Fitr message of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s leader, was released. “If we look into our religious regulations,” it read, “We can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited.” The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, praised Mullah Omar’s conciliatory tone in his own Eid address.

But a couple of weeks later, two days before the second meeting was to be held, an announcement was made on the news: Mullah Omar was dead. Not only that, he had died back in 2013. Din Mohammed was shocked, and then filled with questions. Who had written the Eid message? Who had been leading the group for the past two years? And with whom had the High Peace Council really been negotiating?

He learned that the Taliban’s peace delegates were in Islamabad awaiting instructions. They, too, had been stunned by the report of Mullah Omar’s death, which had been kept secret by the organization’s top brass. (According to one account, he had died of tuberculosis at a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan; others reported that he was buried in the southern Afghan province of Zabul.) Yet Din Mohammed was determined to carry on as planned, and convened his team at their office to review the agenda. The discussion had just gotten started when a secretary interrupted with an update: in light of recent events, Pakistan was canceling the meeting. Everyone got up, gathered their things, and left.

That evening, the Taliban Supreme Council in Quetta, Pakistan — known as the Quetta Shura — met to install a new leader. Most were in favor of elevating Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, Omar’s deputy, who had been running daily operations since 2010. But Mansour, a portly man in his late forties, was a drug baron from Kandahar with business interests in Dubai — no revolutionary folk hero. There was an attempt to block his appointment, but by midnight, he managed to win a majority’s consent.

Din Mohammed woke to this news, along with the disquieting revelation that the Taliban envoys he had met with in Murree had likely been sent against their will by the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency. As the confusion mounted, however, he perceived an opportunity. Perhaps the Taliban, with the surprise of a new leader, would be amenable to peace negotiations. Perhaps the United States, after a decade of halfhearted efforts, would put its weight behind ending the civil war. It would be a time of trying all things.

But first, a coronation: in Quetta, thousands of supplicants turned out to swear allegiance to the new Amir al-Muminin (“commander of the faithful”). They hardly could have imagined that within a year, as if in a cosmic test of Afghanistan’s nerve, Mansour would be dead, and the world would be watching the ascent of Donald Trump.

Peace requires patience. It took Vietnam negotiators five years to sign a ceasefire agreement. Resolving the war between Iran and Iraq took eight. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which halted hostilities between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, was built on the failures of three attempts going back to 1973.

In Afghanistan, peace has long been elusive. After the American invasion in 2001 and the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime, international stakeholders met in Bonn, Germany, at the end of the year to choose a new leader for the country. Absent was anyone from the Taliban, who were “running around trying to avoid being killed by the Americans,” Barnett Rubin, who participated in the meeting on behalf of the United Nations, told me. The dignitaries settled on Hamid Karzai, a forty-four-year-old mujahed, as interim president.

Member of the High Peace Council Maulvi Qayamuddin Kashaf, then governor of Kabul province Haji Din Mohammed, and member of Parliament Ustad Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf (from left to right) listen to then president Hamid Karzai during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 22, 2011 © Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The same day, Karzai went to meet senior Taliban officials in Shah Wali Kot, a town in southern Afghanistan. While he was on his way, a 2,000-pound bomb, guided by satellite from a U.S. B-52 flying north of Kandahar, missed its target, killing three Americans and five Afghan fighters, and wounding many more. When Karzai arrived in Shah Wali Kot, he recalled to me recently, he found a fifteen-man Taliban delegation waiting, with a letter surrendering power to him and “asking nothing in return.” I asked how he had felt. “It was an eventful day,” he said.

The letter was read aloud to the nation on the radio that night. Karzai never saw the document again, but its effects were immediate. In exchange for a public truce, he promised to grant the Taliban total amnesty.

As he was ironing out the details, however, Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense, declared that there would be no such agreement. Night raids began around that time, with U.S. Special Operations Forces going after Taliban officials, “harassing them, attacking their houses, stealing their motorbikes and cows, creating the impression that there was no room for them in the new order,” according to a report from the Open Society Foundations. For the Taliban, the lesson was clear: Karzai was unreliable, and America wished only to impose revenge on its vanquished enemy. Some continued to work on reconciliation, but many more opted to rebuild their movement into the formidable militant group we know.

When Barack Obama took office, in 2009, interest in peace talks was revived. The Taliban were consistent in their demands — they wanted to open an office, see imprisoned members released from Guantánamo Bay, and have their names removed from the U.N. sanctions list. Over years of faltering, informal conversations and trade-offs, many of their requests were eventually granted: a political office was permitted in Doha, Qatar; five Taliban prisoners were released; and fourteen of 137 names were crossed off the list, allowing those members to travel freely.

On June 18, 2013, six months into Obama’s second term, those watching the news in Kabul would have seen two major stories: in the morning, Karzai gave a speech marking the official security handover from NATO to the Afghan military; in the afternoon, the Taliban’s political office opened in a diplomatic enclave of Doha. The Taliban flag, inscribed with the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, flew high in a courtyard, as if designating the embassy of a sovereign state. Karzai had only reluctantly consented when American negotiators arranged for the office; now he was livid. Within a month, the place was shuttered, and the peace agenda stalled once again.

Karzai’s second term ended in September 2014. Ashraf Ghani, his successor, made clear in his inaugural address that reconciliation would be a renewed priority. “We are tired of war; our message is peace,” he declared, and went on, “For stability, security, and economic development, we will try to reach a regional cooperation pact with all our neighbors.” Two months later, he visited Pakistan to court military leadership at their base, in Rawalpindi, and decided to offer substantial concessions: cadets would fly there for training, weapons orders from India would be canceled. This was a cop to Pakistan’s pride; the only way to secure cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, many observers believe, is by pandering to Pakistan’s insecurity over its conflict with India. Back home, however, many of Ghani’s countrymen were horrified. Karzai publicly called the arrangement an “atrocious betrayal.” He told me, “Pakistan was allowed to harbor the Taliban leadership and to train them and to equip them. They made serious mistakes that cost them so much and they cost us so much.”

Ghani pushed to get peace talks started before the Taliban began their spring offensive, but he didn’t make it in time. However receptive Mullah Mansour might have been to negotiations — he gave a nod to the Political Commission, the Taliban’s diplomatic wing, to continue their work — when he took over as leader, he needed first and foremost to consolidate his power. On August 7, 2015, a truck bomb went off in central Kabul, killing fifteen people and injuring hundreds. Within hours, a U.S. Special Forces base was attacked, and ten died. Three days after that, an assault on the Kabul airport killed five and wounded seventeen. In October, the northern city of Kunduz became the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since their regime had lost control of the country fourteen years earlier.

This past spring, the violence escalated. On the morning of April 19, a blast ripped through central Kabul. Taliban militants had driven a truck full of explosives into the headquarters of an elite security team. When I arrived a few hours later, the street, normally full of vendors selling cigarettes and biscuits, was deserted and littered with the detritus of the bombing: husks of cars, a sullied prayer rug. Where there once stood walls were sheets of metal contorted like Richard Serra sculptures. The thirty-eight arched windows of the Eid Gah Mosque, where Afghanistan declared its independence from Britain in 1919, were entirely shattered. Broken glass glinted in the sun. A NATO blimp hovered in the sky.

By afternoon, residents began to put the pieces of their lives back together. Stalls reappeared, selling the last strawberries of the season. Commuters were heading home, disks of still-warm bread under their arms. A man carrying a flower passed the bomb site without a glance. Livery cabs slowed to collect passengers.

The next day, the Ministry of Interior Affairs announced the toll: sixty-four killed, 347 injured. Later, more deaths were counted, bringing the official number up to sixty-eight. This was the deadliest attack to date since 2001, a statement from the Taliban to Afghans that their government could not protect them. The chief executive officer and foreign minister lost bodyguards in the bombing, and the vice president lost a nephew. Ghani gave a rare speech before a joint session of parliament, broadcast on television, in which he called elements of the Taliban “the enemy.” Soon after, the government hanged six Taliban militants — prisoners of war or political prisoners, depending on whom you asked. A Taliban official tried to persuade me that it was unlikely the men sentenced to death had any connection to his group, but said, “This execution blocked the way for peace.” When I visited Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst, to talk about the peace process, he shook his head. “After the last attack,” he said, “everything is finished.”

According to the theory of conflict resolution developed by I. William Zartman, a scholar of international politics, there are four conditions that must come together in order to achieve peace: (a) a “mutually hurting” stalemate, (b) awareness that it is mutual and that it is hurting and that it is a stalemate, (c) united leadership, and (d) a belief that you may get from negotiating what you have not gotten from fighting. Afghanistan at the start of 2017 meets one of these: (a) both sides have suffered losses, yes, but (b) neither believes that it has, (c) the Ghani Administration and the Taliban leadership are unstable, and (d) factions on both sides persist that indulge the fantasy of a military triumph.

Conservative estimates by the U.S. military put the Afghan government in control of more than 60 percent of the country and the Taliban at 10 percent, with the rest contested. When I read these numbers to a former high-ranking Afghan security official, he laughed and guessed that, if anything, the figures were likely the reverse, and the expanse of contested territory is really much larger. Over the past fifteen years, checkpoints, district centers, roads, fields, and aqueducts have been fought over, falling into government control, wrested back by the Taliban, and won again by soldiers. These advances and retreats have not amounted to anyone’s victory. In the meantime, essential services can’t be delivered, as some areas switch loyalties back and forth overnight.

Kabul newspapers report on the death of Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, in a U.S. drone strike on May 21, 2016 © Rahmat Gul/AP Photo

And what of the country’s leadership? Ghani came into the presidency after a protracted election that threatened to plunge Afghanistan into deeper chaos. The so-called National Unity Government, a power-sharing coalition brought about by Secretary of State John Kerry, installed Ghani’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, in a prime-ministerial position. The administration has, of course, been beset by infighting, and some ministers continue to defer to Karzai. Abdullah, addressing a crowd in his office garden, called Ghani unfit to govern. Last April, when whispers began of a coup, Kerry made a return trip to quell any mutiny.

Apart from deficient governance, the High Peace Council has been hemorrhaging money. In recent years, members’ salaries and stipends for luxury cars, airfare, and security have reportedly run up a bill of as much as $700 million. Last summer, rather than propose a new budget strategy, the council burned through its emergency fund. In response to accusations of corruption, members said it wasn’t their fault that peace eluded them.

At the same time, the disclosure of Mullah Omar’s death had precipitated the biggest leadership crisis in the Taliban’s history. Many fighters questioned the legitimacy of an organization that had been lying to its members. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which for more than a decade had fought alongside the Taliban, broke away to join the Islamic State. Its exasperated leader, Uthman Ghazi, wrote in a public announcement that the only communication he had received from his supposed leader in recent years was “two fabricated letters that were typed off on the computer which didn’t have his signature!”

Mullah Mansour responded by requesting a fatwa that would offer justification for targeting Islamic State fighters. In December 2015, rumor spread of a violent altercation within the Taliban leadership, and Mansour, it was said, was badly injured in a shoot-out. He allowed his delegates to continue to meet on unofficial terms with peace negotiators, but even as the Taliban gained ground, it had become harder to tell what constituency the Political Commission could really speak for.

The discord of Mansour’s reign came to a sudden halt last May, when an American drone struck a taxi across the Pakistani border in Balochistan. The dr

iver and his passenger, Mullah Mansour, were killed. Mansour had been traveling on a fake Pakistani passport. The strike, a high-ranking Afghan government official told me, was a hunting call to the Taliban. “ ‘There is no option that is open to you,’ ” he said. “ ‘Americans will kill you anywhere you go.’ ”

The Taliban quickly chose Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a religious scholar, as Mansour’s replacement. Maulvi Haibatullah, a preacher’s son from Kandahar, had risen within the organization thanks to his talent for resolving disputes. His promotion would soon enable the Taliban to reset their operations with new force.

Into this mire comes Donald Trump. When his win was announced, Ashraf Ghani sent him a staid note of congratulations. “It breaks my heart to have to say this, but the Republican government is going to be better than the Democrats for Afghanistan,” Scott Guggenheim, an American friend of Ghani’s who advises him on policy, told me. “The Democrats would have said, ‘They are still squabbling, this is a waste of time, let’s just go home.’ The Republicans will say, ‘These guys are fighting the radicals; we have to stay engaged with them.’ ” Does that mean the Trump Administration is likely to accomplish anything in Afghanistan? “I doubt it. But they won’t go home.”

Trump maintains that his guiding political philosophy is “America First.” As a foreign policy, this has generally been interpreted as isolationism, yet he also speaks aggressively on the Islamic State — “Their days are numbered,” he has said. “His policies on the campaign trail were so mutually contradictory and changeable that he is much harder to predict than an orthodox president-elect would be,” Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me.

Trump has expressed interest in extracting the United States from its nation-building commitments in Afghanistan — the Obama Administration had already begun to reduce the number of troops there, though 8,400 remain — but he has also suggested the possibility of providing American forces abroad in exchange for cash. In December, during a congressional review of troop caps led by Vicky Hartzler, a Republican of Missouri, House members and military experts sifted out the merits of repealing set limits on the number of forces deployed. The next day, General John Nicholson, the top military commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon, “We have adequate resources.” Trump was not caught listening to either consultation, though with the aid of a friendly Republican Congress and expanded executive privileges, he will be wielding greater power than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama to contend with a conflict that stumped both of them.

Over the years, Trump’s comments on Afghanistan have been rare. In 2011, he told Fox News, “In Afghanistan, they build a school. They blow up the school. They blow up the road. We then start all over again.” When asked about the conflict directly, he invariably pivots to a diatribe against Pakistan. “He talks about Afghanistan only if he’s cornered, and when cornered, he has said that he simply wants to get out,” Biddle observed. “On the other side of the ledger, some of his national-security appointees have been very hawkish — and moreover, they are particularly hawkish in what they see as a global war against Islamist militancy.” Trump’s pick for national-security adviser — Michael T. Flynn, a lieutenant general who ran military intelligence in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 and has persistently characterized the country as a threat to the United States — will have a formidable influence on his decision-making. With the defense secretary James Mattis, who led the first Marine force into Afghanistan in September 2001, and who Trump called “the closest thing we have to General George Patton,” the American military could become ever more entrenched on the battlefield.

Trump’s selection for secretary of state — Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, who has a close relationship with Vladimir Putin — could mean that Russia, which nearly thirty years since its withdrawal from Afghanistan has been investing in housing and factories there, may seize this opportunity to muscle back in. Last year, Putin’s envoy told state media of peace talks, “Honestly speaking, we’re already tired of joining anything Washington starts,” and days later Russia sent the Afghan security forces ten thousand automatic rifles, hoping to strengthen direct ties with Kabul. Meanwhile, “It is openly known that Russia is reaching out to the Taliban,” Jodi Vittori, a senior policy adviser for the organization Global Witness, told me. Tillerson, answering to Trump, appears promising for Russia as it grasps at regional dominance. And this would free up Trump to focus on the domestic priority, Making America Great Again.

Distressing as the virulent anti-Muslim sentiment among many in Trump’s inner circle may be, the extent of their Afghanistan experience thrills the Kabul elite. “We know and everybody knows how heated campaign rhetoric becomes,” Hila Alam, who is second in command at the Afghan Embassy, told me. She had attended the Republican Convention, where she met with several Trump advisers. “There is this rhetoric out there that concerns people who say there is a tendency to be Islamophobic, who see that rhetoric among certain groups in the U.S. But I don’t see this having a hard spillover effect on policy decisions in Afghanistan.” She went on, “You have a real partner to work with here.”

The United States and other foreign donors have already committed $800 million annually to Afghanistan through 2020. But when the author of The Art of the Deal is considering a course of action, the decision may not come down to honoring contracts so much as his temperament. “He is going to have much less patience for less-effective leadership,” Christopher Kolenda, a former senior Pentagon official who is writing a policy brief on Afghanistan for the Center for a New American Security, told me. “And he is more likely to question why we are spending more on security assistance in Afghanistan than we do in any other country in the world.”

The first recorded peace agreement in Islam is from seventh-century Arabia, when the Prophet Mohammed negotiated the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The treaty granted pilgrimage rights to Muslims living outside Mecca. According to Islamic scholars, talks almost broke down because Meccans objected to the prophet being called the messenger of God. Mohammed, who could neither read nor write, asked for his hand to be guided to the clause in dispute, and struck the mention from the page.

That the prophet himself was the original peacemaker has drawn many to compromise — the sophisticated and charlatans, some selfless and others hubristic. In the spring and summer of 2016, I wandered in and out of the offices of well-known businessmen and tribal elders, only to bump into emissaries from insurgent groups. Underneath the subcutaneous layers of officially sanctioned activities, I came upon scores of small gestures, olive branches extended to former colleagues, inmates, classmates, and family members. The Taliban Political Commission was said to be meeting quietly with representatives from thirty to forty countries. The troubled High Peace Council was involved, too. “There is hardly a political group in Afghanistan that is not in contact with them,” a high-ranking security official told me. Over time, conversations had been taking place in Kyoto, Dubai, Chantilly, Mecca, and Oslo. The hope was to arrange another formal meeting like the one that Din Mohammed had led in Murree.

Even deeper below the surface, I found academics and former officials, informed enough about their country’s positions to serve as messengers without the weight of political office. In negotiation parlance, these most casual talks are called Track 2. Because the participants tend to be nongovernmental, the conversations that began during the Obama years can continue during Trump’s presidency.

Perhaps the most prolific organizer of Afghanistan’s Track 2 initiatives is Khalilullah Safi, a tall, spindly man who wears his hair in a square flattop. He is a habitual texter, and at all times carries five cell phones with as many chargers. He gives different numbers to different groups, and often appears distracted, scrolling through the alerts coming through his Skype, Emo, and Viber accounts. Because there is no Pashto keyboard for the iPhone, he types messages to his Taliban contacts in English.

Safi grew up in an affluent land-owning family in eastern Afghanistan, where his father was an elder in their tribe. He was a small child when the Soviet-backed communist government stormed into power, in 1979, and his family was displaced across the border to Pakistan. There, he enrolled at Dawat al-Jihad, a fundamentalist university where his classmates were future Taliban revolutionaries. Later, he began working with some of them in his capacity as a mediator, which twice landed him in prison, as he was ensnarled by Afghanistan’s legal ban on “illegitimate” contact with the Taliban. In 2011, he was fully acquitted, and hired to serve as the U.N.’s Taliban whisperer.

Safi is now working for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a conflict-resolution organization, and continuing his informal meetings with high-ranking Taliban officials in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. Officially, the Afghan government and foreign dignitaries disapprove of Safi’s efforts, considering him a meddler. Nicholas Haysom, who led the U.N. in Afghanistan, told me that the Taliban use Track 2 exercises as a way of avoiding formal negotiations. “The world is saying to the Taliban, ‘You have to come to direct talks.’ They are saying, ‘No, we don’t need to come to direct talks. We will go to Track Two.’ We are saying, ‘That’s not talking to the government. That’s just laying out your propaganda.’ ” But Safi told me that, in the past year, he and his colleagues had made more headway with the Taliban’s delegates than any formal negotiations could have.

One morning this past spring, Safi invited me to attend a Pugwash meeting in Kabul. The central drama was seating. Pugwash’s office had twenty-one comfortable chairs, but he was expecting at least twenty-five guests. Afghanistan is a highly coded society, with rules governing where you sit, your gait, how you serve tea, and the note of your laughter. When a person of higher standing walks into a room, you are expected to position yourself accordingly — it is not uncommon to have an entire room rearrange itself to accommodate a newcomer.

After Safi was satisfied with the placement of the chairs, the doors opened, and everyone entered: former government ministers, tribal leaders, and people identified as “Taliban sympathizers.” Taking their carefully assigned seats, the participants went through a peace proposal sketched out by Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, the head of Pugwash. The discussion lasted hours. The group covered prospects for federalism (intimidating), religious plurality (contentious), constitutional reform (inevitable), and a ceasefire (yes, but how?). In the end, successive meetings were arranged, hands shaken, and cheeks kissed. They had a rough draft. Everyone stepped out to the street, past concertina wire and armed guards.

The following Thursday, the start of the Muslim weekend, Safi called to ask if I would like to accompany him and Cotta-Ramusino to Jalalabad. They had incorporated the feedback from the meeting and were shopping the proposal around. Safi wanted to leave that night. The Kabul–Jalalabad highway extends across a narrow gorge where travelers regularly crash down rock cliffs to their deaths. The sun had been setting by six, which was also when the police guarding checkpoints along the route went home for the evening, and I preferred to travel in daylight, I told him. A compromise was struck: we would leave at three in the afternoon and arrive just before the sun set.

We rode east. Cotta-Ramusino told me about his time as a member of the Avanguardia Operaia, the Trotskyist student group in 1970s Italy. Cotta-Ramusino, who now teaches functional analysis at the University of Milan, has the build of a jumbo egg. He was squeezed uncomfortably into the front passenger seat, next to a hired driver. Like many leftists of his time, he explained, he once supported the Cultural Revolution in China. “I regret it,” he said, and sighed.

Safi, without glancing up from his phone, gestured out the window. “Okay, Paolo, from here until where you can see is Taliban area,” he said. We passed vertiginous hills set against a cornflower-blue sky.

Cotta-Ramusino looked at the landscape. “I understand how radicals think,” he said. “I was one myself.”

As the sun dipped behind palm fronds, we arrived at our first meeting, with peace activists at the home of a local elder. Sugarcane juice was served. Cotta-Ramusino took notes. Consultative democracy, it turned out, is a small nightmare. There was nothing to inoculate the process from tangents, and much got lost in translation. “Forecasting is particularly difficult, especially concerning the future,” Cotta-Ramusino said, borrowing the line from Niels Bohr. When no one laughed, he added, “It’s a joke.” Nothing still. The conversation began to coalesce around blaming Pakistan, a conversational bog from which there is no escape, and yet Cotta-Ramusino exhibited the same patience with illiterate villagers as he did with high-ranking Taliban members. Afghanistan’s shoes-on, shoes-off custom was tough on his bad right knee, but he did not complain.

The next day, Safi introduced us to two men who “understand the situation very well” — code for “linked to the Taliban.” This can mean anything from “I sat next to one of them in Koran-reading class once” to “I am an active fighter.” These men were from Bati Kot and Achin, areas farther east that had fallen to the Islamic State. Over a lunch of fried fish and watermelon, they said that they approved of the drafted peace proposal but remained upset at Ghani for the hangings in April. To them, it was proof that the president was not serious about reconciliation. Why else, they wondered, would he do something that would alienate the base he was trying to make nice with?

The proposal-shopping continued the following week, this time in Doha, where we were to meet with the Taliban’s Political Commission at a five-star hotel. When we arrived, Cotta-Ramusino headed upstairs to sort out the seating. I waited for the Taliban. I was wearing a black, tent-like abaya and a scarf around my head. Out of habit, I’d put on red lipstick, but when I caught my reflection in the stainless-steel elevator doors, it seemed too much, and I wiped it off.

The Taliban delegation arrived eight minutes late, with mea culpas about the traffic. There were three of them, wearing taqiyah caps, beards, and shiny metallic watches. The older men were avuncular, the youngest handsome. I led them up to the meeting room. After everyone sat down, Cotta-Ramusino and the head of the Taliban delegation discussed whether they should eat the cookies that had been put out on the table. They were both watching their sugar, they said, and decided against it.

For the next two hours, the men wrangled over the same subjects they always talked about: reopening the Doha office, releasing the last of the Guantánamo prisoners, and removing the remaining Taliban members from the sanctions list. Cotta-Ramusino urged the delegation not to get hung up on the specifics of the proposal. “Don’t make this into a wish list,” he warned. “Otherwise we will get nowhere. You have to think about what is essential for you and what is not essential for you.”

Cotta-Ramusino contended that both sides agreed, roughly, on the outlines of peace: everyone knew that foreign troops could not remain in Afghanistan forever; a ceasefire needed to be negotiated; and power, however bitterly, had to be shared. “It should be within the framework of Islamic rule and Afghan tradition,” one of the Taliban members said.

“Sure, sure, sure,” Cotta-Ramusino replied, with the wave of a hand. Then he added, “Tradition is one thing, but we have to improve on that tradition.”

The Taliban representatives suggested that they were open to progress. When the subject of women’s rights came up, one of the men pointed at me, and said, “You can receive education. You can hold positions.”

As Cotta-Ramusino walked them through the proposal, the delegates would stop, discuss each point among themselves, and then ask him to explain. “Everyone is working on your return to political life,” he assured them. They did not appear convinced. The Ghani Administration’s hangings, they complained, defied any understanding. “They only raised slogans of peace, but in practice, they oppose peace,” one of the older men said.

Still, they agreed to convene again soon. “To have a normal life, it’s a very strong feeling,” another Taliban delegate said. “Nobody wants the war anymore.” As they took their leave, I looked down at the plate of cookies. Despite the earlier promise, all had been eaten.

How can the war end? The best-case scenario may be a negotiated settlement, reached with or without Donald Trump’s help. “Like other nations of the world, Afghans also have the right to elect their own leadership and to decide about their future without the interfering of foreigners,” Safi told me when we spoke after the election. He was glad that Trump had won, viewing him as an isolationist. On the other hand, perhaps the new U.S. president could give an interventionist nudge: “It will be great if he bombs all these elements and groups who are anti-peace,” Safi said.

The Taliban are similarly looking forward to the arrival of Trump. “He should withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and unlike other former U.S. rulers, he should neither seek any more titles of ignominy for himself and American generals nor worsen the American prestige, economy, and military by engaging in this futile war,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, told me. “Let the Afghan people as an independent nation build an autonomous system that has interaction with one another and with the world.”

Trump may be amenable to satisfying the Taliban’s request. “There is a willingness on his part to entertain all options, and a total pullout is one of those options,” Kolenda told me. But, he warned, “A total troop withdrawal will encourage the Taliban to keep fighting.”

Haysom, who was the U.N.’s man in Afghanistan, said he was “professionally obligated to be an optimist,” and that he still believed in the Afghan peace process, because the dueling sides were more similar than they cared to admit. The problem, Safi told me, is that they do not see each other for what they are. “The Taliban believes the power is in the hands of the Americans,” he said. “The Afghan government accuses the Taliban of being spies of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence.”

Many Taliban leaders remain bitter over Washington’s strike against Mullah Mansour. At a meeting in September, the Political Commission fumed at America’s apparent lack of sincerity. “We have doubts whether the U.S. is honest about the peace process,” the minutes from the meeting read. “They are not taking any initiative since the past ten years to show they are genuine.” Safi suggested that the novelty of Trump might encourage his contacts to return to talks.

But when I called Din Mohammed at the High Peace Council to ask about his outlook, he said of the attack on Mansour, “When he died, everything ended with him. Slowly, slowly, we were going to the point of speaking with the Taliban.” He did not know when their next chance would come. These days, few bother showing up at his office.

Over the years, some local communities have taken matters into their own hands. Tribal elders, tired of the fighting that destroys their villages, set out to resolve conflict on their own — without the High Peace Council, the U.N., or NATO. “Mediation is a part of Afghan culture,” Barnett Rubin, who is now a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, told me. In the Dand-e Ghori district, in the north, a feud between the Pashtuns and Persian speakers broke out over a proposed power line but soon became about other, ancient grievances. Over five trips last spring and summer, a twenty-eight-year-old Afghan American named Ali Wardak met with tribal leaders and managed to negotiate an electricity-sharing agreement. Fighting subsided. Wardak has since continued working to expand his success to the rest of the province.

The grassroots progress was encouraging, but insufficient as the broader conflict lurched to its next turning point. So far, Maulvi Haibatullah, the new Taliban leader, has been unburdened by the controversies of his predecessor and more effective at consolidating power, which has meant a diminished interest in peace. The fracturing observed under Mansour has, in places, led to alliances between militants affiliated with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State. In the north, the cooperation threatens hard-fought territory and places the capital at risk. The National Unity Government has fallen into greater disarray, with ministers being fired en masse. In the fall, Ghani signed a peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the historically violent Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party), who has for twenty years remained in exile after commanding the slaughter of some 50,000 Afghans; this was meant to demonstrate the possibility of domestic accord with groups designated by the United States as terrorist organizations, yet its effects were merely theoretical, as there has been no relief from bloodshed.

On July 23, two suicide bombers struck Kabul, killing at least eighty, injuring more than 260, and usurping the title of the war’s deadliest attack. Now, each day, fifty Afghan soldiers are killed, and 180 are lost to injuries and desertions. A high-ranking Afghan security official told me that the annual casualty rate at the end of 2016 was the highest ever recorded in Afghanistan, with more than 10,000 soldiers dead, and thousands more civilians have lost their lives.

The survivors of the conflict, awaiting the next chapter of diplomacy, have no choice but to be patient.

lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The One Reason That Barack Obama Set the Middle East On Fire

Syrian Oil Ministry Announces Huge Oil and Gas find offshore, the Next Day Obama Signs Ex. Order Freezing Syrian Assets 

Barack Obama’s Pre-War Attempt To Steal Syrian Gas Find for Israel—Executive Order 13582

[Thanks to the limping messenger, for preserving the map photo of Syrian “Open Areas” for oil and gas exploration…it is missing from the Internet, except for this post, even scrubbed from original Syrian Oil and Gas News site.  The following photo is from the Syrian Oil and Gas site, showing the offshore blocks which were offered for bidding on Mar. 30, 2011, the day the West turned against Syria and the anti-Assad protests began.]


The backdrop of the policy for Libya and Syria by European Union and associated NATO countries is always painted with oil. (1) British/Dutch Royal Dutch Shell, French Total, CNPC from China and ONGC of India are main investors in Syrian crude oil and gas. (2)

13 November 2009 humanitarian oil diplomacy by Assad, the other way around: “I asked President Sarkozy to interfere as to stop the daily killing of the Palestinians by the Israel Army,” said H.E. President Al-Assad citing today’s killing of a Palestinian citizen. (3)

His Excellency President Al-Assad described his talks with President Sarkozy as ‘very successful”, ‘constructive” ”transparent” and as ”bolstering the confidence built between Syria and France”, ”dealing with many international as well as regional issues, bilateral relations, the Iranian nuclear file, the recent positive developments in Lebanon, particularly following the formation of the Lebanese Government, which we expect to be an important step for the stability in Lebanon.” (…) ”The talks, further, dealt with the situation in Gaza from a human perspective; I asked President Sarkozy to interfere as to stop the daily killing of the Palestinians by the Israel Army,” said H.E. President Al-Assad citing today’s killing of a Palestinian citizen.

 “… discovery of treasure, a huge oil and gas in the basin of the Mediterranean is estimated reserves to 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 107 billion barrels of oil.”

SYRIAN OIL AND GAS NEWS: Announcement for International Offshore Bid Round 2011 Category: Oil Ministry Decisions & Declarations | Posted on: 30-03-2011 The Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and General Petroleum Corporation (GPC) invite international petroleum companies for an International Bid Round to explore, develop and produce petroleum from three offshore blocks in some areas of the territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone of the Syrian Arab Republic in the Mediterranean Sea according to the production sharing contract.The announcment contains three marine areas ( block I, block II, blockIII) with covarage area estemated by 3000 cubic kilometers per one block. the annoncement date starts in 24/3/2011 for six monthes and closed on 5/10/2011.The modern American studies recently confirmed the discovery of treasure, a huge oil and gas in the basin of the Mediterranean is estimated reserves to 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 107 billion barrels of oil. (4)

(1) oilprice.com 14/4/2011: “Oil Production Figures in Areas of Unrest (Middle East & North Africa)”

(2) royaldutrchshellplc.com 3/12/2011: “E.U. sanctions force Shell to leave Syria.”

(3) www.presidentassad.net: Presidents Al-Assad/ Frnace visit statements (13/11/2009)

(4)  Syrian Oil and Gas News; 8/2/2010:International announcement for developing 7 oil field in Arraqah

Russians and Syrians Plan Joint Rehabilitation Effort For Recovered Western Gas Industry

[SEE: Russian Gas Co. Wins Drilling Rights To Syrian Offshore Gas Bonanza Potentially Rivaling “Leviathan”Syrian Oil Ministry Announces Huge Oil and Gas find offshore, the Next Day Obama Signs Ex. Order Freezing Syrian Assets ]

Syria Moscow is discussing with Damascus the partnership in oil and gas projects in Syria








Hayyan gas plant burned by retreating ISIL

Moscow stressed that it is discussing with Damascus the prospects of participation of Russian companies in oil and gas projects in Syria, with a focus on the issue of ensuring the safety of the activities of these companies, considering at the same time that the military and political situation in Syria is complex.
According to the website of the Russian channel today, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said in an interview on the eve of his visit to Kuwait to attend the second meeting of the follow-up committee to the reduction of production on the issue of Russia’s assistance to Syria in the development and extraction of oil. To trust with the Syrian partners on the possibility of participation of Russian companies in the implementation of oil and gas projects or modernization of existing projects on Syrian territory ».
“The military and political situation in Syria is complex. At the same time, Russia continues to make efforts to reach a political settlement to the conflict in Syria and create additional opportunities to combat terrorist groups there,” Novak said. Novak expressed his confidence in the participation of Russian companies in the oil and gas projects on Syrian territory, in the event of securing the appropriate level of comfortable accommodation for employees of Russian companies in Syria.
It is noteworthy that the Syrian Arab army has recently been able to recover most of the oil and gas fields in the central region of the organization calling for the terrorist, while the organization still controls most of the oil wells in the eastern region. On February 2, the organization organized the burning of Hayyan gas plant in the eastern Homs countryside, which is the largest gas plant in Syria, before withdrawing from it. A military source at the time said that the organization called on the senior terrorist to burn the Hayyan gas plant on Thursday evening (February 2) and completely destroy it prior to withdrawing from it to the city of Palmyra to block the progress of the Syrian Arab army into oil and gas fields.

ISIL Releases Photo of Bomb-Damaged Tabqa Dam

Engineer says Tabqa dam not in immediate damage, but needs urgent repairs


BEIRUT, LEBANON (12:34 P.M.) – The ISIS-affiliated Amaq Agency has published a picture of Tabqa dam control room in complete disarray. This has led to fears that Syria’s largest dam can collapse.

The damage was done from US-led airstrikes.

However, an engineer at the dam has said there is no need to panic yet, but critical repairs are needed as soon as possible.

“If water flow from Turkey remains unchanged, we have about 30 days to time of collapse,” the engineer said.

Essentially, Turkey with its control of the water flow have the power on whether the dam can be salvageable or not.

Pentagon’s Kurdish SDF Invites the Syrian Army To Help-Out w/Their Coming Raqqa Offensive

BEIRUT, LEBANON (7:33 P.M.) A spokesperson from the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) declared his organization welcomes the participation of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in the coming operations to kick Islamic State (ISIS) forces out of their de-facto captial, Raqqa.

In declarations to the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, Talal Silo claimed the SDF has always stated that the Syrian people have the right to liberate their areas, and that the Syrian Army is an essential part of the Syrian homeland and people.

The Syrian Army have the right to do what “others” shouldn’t do, he said, rejecting any kind of Turkish involvement in the coming operations.

Silo also claimed that, with US support, the SDF are now between 10 to 15 days ahead of reaching the borders of Raqqa city.

He highlighted that any kind of SAA involvement in the Raqqa operation will be discussed with the main SDF partner, the US-led Coalition.

The Syrian Arab Army – spearheaded by their elite “Tiger Forces” – is currently engaging ISIS in the Maskanah Plains in eastern Aleppo; a potential offensive towards Raqqa by the SAA will advance from the Maskanah and the Itriyah axes.

Silo’s remarks came days after growing coordination and cooperation between Syrian and Kurdish forces, and their backers, the Russia and the US.

Weeks ago, Syrian and Russian forces were deployed in and around the city of Manbij in northern Aleppo, creating a buffer to prevent an impending Turkish offensive agains those areas; humanitarian and trade corridors were also established between Manbij and Aleppo city.

In Trump-World, Only Christian Liberals Are Burdened w/the Poor, the sick, etc.

[The topic of this article nails a point of view that has been a festering splinter in my mind for many months, the changing of the social welfare paradigm and its relation to Trumpism (a.k.a., the dying of the Republican Party).  For many decades, the destruction of the American “Welfare State” has been the cornerstone of Republican and Conservative ideology, the First Item on their golden “Agenda”.  They have always planned to starve the Welfare State to death from the inside, without ever considering a replacement social service mechanism, to preserve the life of ordinary Americans who happened to be too old to work, too sick or disabled to work, veterans, children, whoever was too “poor” to finance their lots in an expensive world.

Sorry for the rant, but I do have a point to make (in my circular way) about a new phenomenon, a dramatic increase in the number of “begging” commercials (Shriners, feed the children, save the tormented animals, the list is growing…), since the Republican takeover.  The point is, that this is the beginnings of the new Republican social service solution…let charities, especially religious charities, feed the hungry, bring health care to the helpless, pay the bill for humanity, tend to the human “flotsam” from the great “ship wreck” of God’s Plan.  Republicans seem to believe that only the Democrats and other “Bleeding Hearts” have been charged by God with the burden of serving their fellow man, the following Commandment only refers to them…. 

Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me.”

This is the primary reason for the ongoing deconstruction of the Republican Party…they claim to represent Christianity, even though everything they do is a blatant attack upon some under-performing segment of society, from their perpetual war upon the world, to their war upon the Welfare State.  If Americans would simply find a quiet moment of introspection and reflect upon the last fifteen years of war, those who have been sincere in their looking would see the truth that the American Government is hostile to humanity.  Everything from our national debt, to our perpetual/persistent war and the resultant international refugee crisis can be laid on the American doorstep.  The Republican war upon the world is coming to a head and the human fallout has only just begun.

Trump can be counted on to continue his assault upon the Welfare State, no matter what the cost.  Americans will not allow him to dismantle our fledgling health care solution, or to shift the burden of taxation to the middle class and the poor.  The longer it takes for Trump to kill the Republican Party, the more pissed-off everyone will become.  It is going to be a hot, long summer.

Anyway…welcome to the demolition of the Welfare State and the American Republic, along with it.]–PeterChamberlin@hotmail.com

Can Religious Charities Take the Place of the Welfare State?


Supporters of Trump’s budget are eager to restore the central role of faith-based organizations in serving the poor—but it’s not clear they can be an adequate substitute for government.

President Trump’s initial budget proposal would end aid for poor families to pay their heating bills, defund after-school programs at public schools, and make fewer grants available to college students. Community block grants that provide disaster relief, aid neighborhoods affected by foreclosure, and help rural communities access water, sewer systems, and safe housing would be eliminated. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, suggested recently that even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.

With billions of dollars worth of cuts to federal social services likely ahead, the wars of religion have begun. Bible verses about poverty have suddenly become popular on Twitter, with Republicans and Democrats each claiming to better know how Jesus would think about entitlement spending. While conservatives tend to bring religion into public-policy conversations more than liberals, the valence is often switched when it comes to the budget: Liberals eagerly quote the Sermon on the Mount in support of government spending, while conservatives bristle at the suggestion that good Christians would never want cuts.

But it’s more than posturing. If government steps back, religious organizations may need to step up. Much of the infrastructure and money involved in the charitable provision of social services is associated with religion, whether it’s a synagogue’s homeless-sheltering program or a large aid organization such as Catholic Relief Services. People like the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner believe these private services could potentially be expanded even further. While some government programs should be scrapped altogether, he argued, “other programs may well be replaceable by private charity—either dollar-for-dollar, or more likely, they can be done more effectively and efficiently.”

I spoke with roughly a half dozen scholars from a variety of ideological backgrounds who study religious giving, and they were all skeptical that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith-based organizations could serve as an adequate substitute for the government in providing for the needy and vulnerable. The scale and structure of government services, the sectarian nature of religious programs, and the declining role of religion in public life are all challenges, they argued; if anything, states would have to step in to take on the burden, or some current services would go away entirely. The budget debate may seem like a wonky back-and-forth about economic forecasts. But it probes long-standing questions about how society should provide for people’s needs. As David Campbell, a political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame, put it, “No religion is on the sidelines when it comes to caring for the poor.”

People’s views on budget questions are often determined by their political beliefs, said Campbell. Whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, “religious people across the spectrum would agree the poor need to be helped.” The question is who should do the helping, and how much government should be involved.

In their private lives, religious Americans are extremely generous. According to the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University, donations to congregations, denominations, mission board, and TV and radio ministries account for roughly one-third of all annual giving in the U.S. The impact of this money is difficult to calculate, but it’s large: In 2001, the University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan tried to tally the financial value of all congregational social services in Philadelphia, estimating that it added up to roughly $247 million. When all social-service organizations with a religious mission are taken into account, the value of those services in many communities would likely be much higher.

“Religious congregations do a lot … the scale of what they do is trivial compared to what the government does.”

These services aren’t exactly private, however. According to Oklahoma Representative Steve Russell, who testified on religious-freedom issues before Congress last spring, more than 2,000 federal contracts are awarded to religious organizations each year. If programs like the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants are cut, as Trump has proposed, many religious organizations would lose major parts of their operating budgets. This kind of federal-spending cut can have tangible consequences: World Relief, an evangelical organization that works with the federal government on refugee resettlement, cut 140 staffers and closed five offices earlier this year when the Trump administration announced a sharp decrease in the number of refugees that will be accepted into the United States.

A lot of religious giving also doesn’t go toward helping the needy. “The vast majority of religious congregation budget [money] is spent on in-house expenses: clergy, building, materials,” said Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Some congregations have more outreach ministry and social services than others. But in almost all cases, it ends up being a small part of the budget, just because it costs so much to run a congregation.”

Using a national survey of religious congregations in the U.S., the Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves found that 83 percent of congregations have some sort of program to help needy people in their communities. Most often, these efforts provide clothing, food, and temporary shelter, rather than intensive, long-term programs on substance abuse, post-prison rehabilitation, or immigrant resettlement. The median amount congregations spent on social-service programs was $1,500. “Religious congregations do a lot,” said Mary Jo Bane, a professor at Harvard University. But “the scale of what they do is trivial compared to what the government does. Especially if you think about the big government programs like … food stamps and school lunches, or health services through Medicaid, what religious organizations do is teeny tiny.”

If large-scale cuts to domestic social services do make it through the long budget-negotiation process, “there’s an argument to be made [that] … churches, synagogues, etc., might step up,” said Lisa Keister, a professor of sociology at Duke University. Keister has argued that religious engagement is closely associated with financial generosity—in a recent paper, for example, she found that those who attend religious services every week give nearly three times as much as those who don’t.

“Mainline Protestants wouldn’t know how to ‘share the gospel’ if their life depended on it.”

People of all religious backgrounds are generous, but the style of giving differs by faith and denomination. For example: “Jewish families … tend to be wildly generous,” said Keister. Many conservative Christians tithe 10 percent or more of their income, she said, often giving to their churches, which leaves them with less accumulated wealth. Mormons provide a complex array of social services to people in need, but mostly focus on their own members, said Smith. And Catholics and mainline Protestants are less likely to proselytize while helping others: “Mainline Protestants wouldn’t know how to ‘share the gospel’ if their life depended on it,” he said. “They’re just going to help people, and in their mind, they’re doing it in Jesus’s name.”

For some groups, though, proselytizing may be part and parcel of how they reach out to the needy. Liberals often cite this as a reason why the government should provide social services: In the absence of federal funding, people seeking things like education and housing may be left without a non-sectarian alternative. Tanner waved this concern away, though. “If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food—is it less than optimal? Sure,” he said. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”

Americans’ declining level of religious involvement may also cripple institutions’ ability to provide wide-scale services to vulnerable populations. “While I would be hesitant to say that highly secular people are callous, it is the case that religious people, in general, do give more to charitable causes,” said Campbell, and “they are much more likely to give time than money.”

Campbell divided “secular people” into two categories: Those who are “actively secular,” meaning they’ve embraced a secular worldview that involves high levels of political and civic engagement, and the “quintessential nones,” or people who are detached from a wide range of civic, social, and religious institutions. Across demographic groups, and especially among Millennials, that latter group of Americans has been getting bigger. Right now, the government requires them to contribute tax dollars to education, hunger-prevention programs, homelessness services, and more. But, Campbell hypothesized, it’s unlikely that they’d channel that money through private institutions, religious or otherwise, in a world where Trump’s proposed cuts are in place.

“We do have a responsibility to help the poor and those in need. That means taking care of them yourself.”

At some level, this is what the debate over federal spending is all about: What should American communities look like, and how directly should they be responsible for providing for the poor and needy? “It’s an open question whether the rise of the ‘nones’ … will significantly affect religious institutions’ ability to be that hub for social engagement,” said David King, the director of Indiana’s Lake Institute, suggesting that they may grow more involved over time. “I still hold out hope that that’s actually quite possible.” Especially among Millennials, he said, he has seen evidence that Americans are more willing to get involved in their community through “common work,” or direct action on the issues they care about, rather than volunteering with or donating to institutions. As traditional charitable institutions decline, he said, this kind of communal engagement may expand.

For his part, Tanner imagines a world where government no longer crowds out private giving, as he claims it does now. “What’s translated as ‘charity’ in the Bible is ‘agape,’ which literally means love,” he said. “We do have a responsibility to help the poor and those in need. That means taking care of them yourself—giving money yourself, giving your time, your efforts, not someone else’s.”

There is a long road ahead for Trump’s budget. Dismantling the welfare state as thoroughly as he has proposed would be a radical overhaul of the American system. It would shift not just government, but the way organizations that partner with it—including a lot of religious groups—provide services to the poor and vulnerable.