Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures, as he speaks during a conference… (Ahmad Jamshid/AP )
When President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Jan. 11 that a negotiating office for the Taliban was about to open in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, optimism soared within the administration that peace talks would soon be back on track.
But January’s optimism has become February’s reality check: There is still no agreement to open the office, and Karzai, back in Kabul after his Washington visit, says there will be no deal until Qatar meets his conditions in writing.
As the Obama administration nears a decision on the pace of U.S. combat troop withdrawals from Afghanistan between now and the end of 2014, jump-starting reconciliation has become a key element of its exit strategy.
Without some kind of political initiative underway as its forces leave, the administration fears that the United States will again be accused of abandoning the region, just as it was at the end of the Soviet Union’s Afghan occupation in the early 1990s. If another civil war breaks out, as many fear, Afghanistan’s neighbors will again feel the need to choose sides.
In addition, U.S. hopes of positioning a post-withdrawal counterterrorism force in Afghanistan to continue the fight against remnants of al-Qaeda could be compromised.
More immediately, negotiations are critical to hopes for a prisoner exchange with the Taliban that could bring a homecoming for Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl, the only U.S. service member known to be a Taliban captive.
The challenges, some of which lie within the administration, are formidable. Those who won first-term internal debates over an agreement on peace talks worry that the military, long opposed to negotiations, will dig in its heels as new members of the president’s national security team are brought up to speed. The summer fighting season in Afghanistan, always an inauspicious time for talking with the Taliban, is just months away.
Taliban leaders have been stubborn, setting their own conditions for resuming negotiations with the United States, which came to an abrupt halt early last year. The insurgents are seen as divided between those who want to wait out the American departure and those who think it’s time to start on a political path.
But Karzai himself is the biggest cause of U.S. teeth-gnashing, and not for the first time, according to several administration officials who agreed to discuss the rocky road to withdrawal on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.
The crux of the latest disagreement is Karzai’s demand that Qatar produce a written memorandum of understanding agreeing to his preconditions for the Taliban office in Doha, the Qatari capital. The demands include assurances that the office would not be used for any “political purpose” other than direct negotiations with Afghanistan, that it have a fixed time frame and be closed if talks do not take place, and that all Taliban negotiators provide “documentation” proving they are legitimate representatives.
Qatar has long preferred to operate through the United States and has rejected Karzai’s demand for written assurances. For its part, the Taliban has said it has no interest in talking to Karzai and will deal only with the United States and other “international” actors.
When Karzai visited Washington for several days last month, administration officials thought they had finessed those issues, at least enough to get the Qatar office up and running.
A senior administration official said Karzai “got his arm twisted” in Washington, and the sense was that he was prepared to let the office open. Then, the official said, Karzai “went home and got cold feet. He knows we’re in a rush and the last thing in the world we’re thinking about is him.”
Since then, Karzai has refused to budge. “If the purpose of the [Qatar] office is for peace and stability, then the Afghan government is the main side, and our views have to be respected,” said Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman.
A senior Afghan official put it more bluntly, saying: “The U.S. just wants us to agree to the office without the [memorandum of understanding]. But these are our conditions.”
U.S. role in flux
A frustrated Obama administration increasingly seems to see itself as a mere broker trying to bring two equally unreasonable and suspicious sides to the table.
The Taliban thinks the Americans are trying to lure them into talks that will be turned over to Karzai, another U.S. official said. Karzai “is thinking we’re going to make side deals with the Taliban” that will leave him and his supporters out in the political cold.
“We are genuinely looking for a way to give everybody the political space to move ahead,” the official said. “But it seems like neither side wants to settle.”