Though direct talks between the Afghan Taliban and the United States appear to be back on track after some protocol issues with the Taliban's Doha office were resolved, questions remain over President Hamid Karzai's continuing commitment to the dialogue process. Just one day after the Taliban inaugurated its office in Qatar, Karzai pulled the Afghan government out of the presumed peace talks, furious over the way the office was opened. On the surface, it was the display of the Taliban flag and the plaque reading "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" that angered the Afghan government. However, as U.S. and Qatari officials scrambled to diffuse the crisis, it became clear that the Afghan government's rancor at the Taliban press conference went beyond those issues; but why?
It is no secret that Karzai remains opposed to direct talks between the Taliban and the United States. Eighteen months ago, when a Taliban representative appeared in Doha to start direct negotiations with the U.S., initially Karzai opposed the move vehemently, recalled his ambassador from Qatar and rejected any talks which did not include the High Peace Council (HPC), Afghanistan's government-constituted negotiating body. The Afghan government also insisted that the talks be held inside Afghanistan, or alternatively, Saudi Arabia.
Since the first attempt at direct U.S.-Taliban talks was aborted in March 2012, there has been intense international diplomatic engagement with Karzai and his inner circle over this issue. Diplomats from Germany, Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom and Pakistan -- the most critical regional actor -- have tried to mitigate the Afghan government's objections and put forward proposals that incorporated Afghan demands that the peace process be ‘Afghan led.'
When Hina Rabbani Khar, a former Pakistani foreign minister, repeated ad nauseam that Pakistan supported an intra-Afghan dialogue, she was voicing the view favored by Kabul and communicated to Pakistan through various official and unofficial channels. And it made sense. War cannot be ended by just the two main fighting parties, in this case, the Taliban and the United States. There has to be a broader process of political settlement between a number of Afghan factions, including the Taliban, who have been fighting each other for decades. While some of these factions are represented within Karzai's inner circle and the HPC, several of them are part of the opposition and have no trust in the council.
According to Pakistani diplomats, Karzai had pledged to kick-start an internal Afghan process that would develop consensus on the peace talks and bring all of the powerful factions not currently part of the government or the HPC on board. This internal consultation was a necessary first step towards building a national consensus and producing a credible roadmap for talks with the Taliban. However to date, no such process is visible, and there is a shared view emerging in both U.S. and Pakistani policy circles that Karzai would like to see the dialogue process postponed until after the Afghan presidential elections in April 2014. At this point, even limited talks with the Taliban will have to address political structures in post-2014 Afghanistan. While Karzai and his inner circle would likely aim to keep the status quo, both his political opponents and the Taliban could use the peace talks to push for an entirely new set-up.
Karzai is also unhappy with the role Pakistan has played in coaxing the Taliban back to the negotiating table, and in convincing the U.S. that approaching 2014 deadlines demand a resolute move forward on reconciliation. In Pakistan's view, the time has come for the Obama administration to set a firm policy direction, which will in turn help convince a number of fence-sitters within Afghanistan and around the region that the U.S. is serious about exploring political channels to end the war.
Nobody expects quick progress with regard to the talks, but with tentative confidence building measures such as prisoner exchanges, the United States and the Taliban can set the stage for a comprehensive peace process amongst the Afghans themselves. There is also a growing constituency within Afghanistan that supports a political resolution to the conflict. If the Karzai government persists in standing against the tide, his inner circle and presidential nominee will likely be marginalized in the next election. As far as the joint U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement is concerned, it is an issue that can be resolved after the new president is sworn in. The U.S. must not allow itself to be blackmailed over the issue by an outgoing president with a narrow support base.
The next few days and weeks will likely show how far Karzai is willing to go in his opposition to direct U.S.-Taliban talks. Most of the Afghan government's concerns regarding protocol irregularities have been addressed. The Taliban have been persuaded to remove the flag and the objectionable plaque. Both Karzai and Obama have indicated that the Doha talks will now go on, and will not be derailed in the face of recent Taliban attacks. Obama admitted in his comments last Thursday that he had anticipated difficulties during the reconciliation process, but difficulties related to Karzai's own narrow political calibrations must not distract U.S. policymakers from the course that leads towards peace.
Simbal Khan (Ph.D.) is a Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.
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