Afghanistan’s Karzai and Taliban to U.S.: Go Away and Shut Up

The Afghan president says he wants America restricted to its bases. The Taliban break off talks. Who will blink? Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the latest standoffs. Plus, Bruce Riedel on why the suspended talks increase the likelihood of a confrontation with Taliban-friendly Pakistan.

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Today the Taliban announced their leadership’s decision “to suspend all talks with Americans” in the Gulf state of Qatar. “Due to their alternating and ever changing position … the Islamic Emirate was compelled to suspend all dialogue with the Americans,” a statement from the group says, blaming the U.S. negotiators’ “shaky, erratic and vague standpoint.”

Almost simultaneously, the group’s hated enemy Hamid Karzai announced what could turn out to be a massive favor to the insurgents. In talks with Leon Panetta, the Afghan president told the visiting U.S. defense secretary he wants U.S. forces withdrawn from the villages and countryside and confined to coalition military bases by next year. Afghan security forces will take over the role of policing and stabilizing the country’s rural areas, Karzai said. As upset as the Afghan people may be about this week’s massacre of 16 villagers, evidently by an American soldier, few regard the shaky Afghan Army and police as ready for such a task.

Even Karzai must know that, and he still has plenty of time to change his mind. The Taliban’s suspension of talks also seems likely to be no more than a negotiating tactic. But there’s more to it than that.

The group’s statement gives two main reasons the Taliban entered into the Qatar talks. First, the opening of a “diplomatic office” in Qatar provided the insurgents with a place where they could be contacted “under complete freedom and away from any danger.” Second, and more important to the Taliban, they expected that the talks “with the occupying enemy” would center on an exchange of prisoners. Nevertheless, they complain, there was little or no progress toward the release of any captured Taliban. “The Americans initially agreed upon taking practical steps regarding the exchange of prisoners,” the statement says, “but with the passage of time, they turned their backs on their promises.” The insurgents seem particularly incensed by what they call “baseless propaganda” suggesting that the “stooge regime” in Kabul was also involved in the talks. The statement emphatically denies that the Taliban have “conducted any talks with the Karzai administration.”

The prisoner issue was bound to cause problems. The five Guantánamo detainees at the top of the Taliban’s wish list can’t be released without congressional approval, which could be prohibitively hard to get in an election year. The U.S. negotiators are believed to have made that clear early on, but the insurgents seem to have arrived in Qatar with unrealistic expectations.

The trouble may be that the Taliban overestimated their leverage. Over the past two years, the U.S. military surge has driven the guerrillas out of their main strongholds in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. All the same, the insurgents regard themselves as holding the upper hand in the war overall. “We don’t feel at ease in these talks that are moving so slowly,” says a senior Taliban commander who has been briefed on the talks. “The problem with the talks is that the U.S. is talking from the position of a winner, but we are in the position of victors, so the U.S. should meet our demands.” According to him, the talks have been close to collapse before. He says senior Qatari officials intervened and persuaded the Taliban to remain in the process.

But a deeper reason for breaking off the talks—temporarily at least—may be the insurgency’s profoundly dissatisfied rank and file, who are fighting and dying every day. Most fighters in the field resent the prospect that their jihad, for which they have endured suffering and sacrifice, may be compromised in talks with their sworn enemy, the United States. Today’s statement was partially aimed at allaying those fears, warning the Americans that “we are not going to abandon the struggle for our freedom and will not pardon you until the withdrawal of your last soldier and until you let the Afghans establish an Islamic government for themselves.” And regardless of the talks, it’s time for the group’s fighters and commanders to get ready for another year of fighting. “We don’t think the peace talks are going to make a breakthrough,” says a member of the Taliban’s ruling Quetta Shura. “What’s most important is to keep ourselves alert for spring and summer seasons of jihad in Afghanistan.”

Senior Taliban officials suspect the American side of telling Pakistan what’s gone on at the talks—including unflattering things Taliban negotiators have said about Pakistan. Although the insurgents would be a far weaker force without the cross-border sanctuaries inside Pakistan where they train, re-equip, recruit, and plan operations, the insurgents detest its intelligence services. The Pakistanis have arrested some of the Taliban’s most senior leaders and constantly interfere in the group’s affairs. Now guerrilla leaders worry that the Americans may be trying to drive a wedge between Pakistan and the Taliban by telling the Pakistanis exactly what the insurgents think of their patrons.

Despite all the problems, however, some senior Taliban leaders are advising the Quetta Shura that the negotiations should continue. There’s no better way for the insurgency to improve its diplomatic, political, and military position, they say. “The leadership of the Taliban must realize that the window of peace talks must remain open,” says Zabihullah, a senior Taliban political operative. “The biggest problem we had when we were in power was that we discounted the U.S. and the world community. That should not happen again.” Nevertheless, he warns, “I am afraid that some of our military heavyweights may bulldoze their way to stop the talks.”

In any case, the negotiations may very well be sunk by the Taliban’s hardline insistence on returning an Islamic regime to power in Kabul. “No one among the Taliban would argue against ending the war,” says the senior Taliban commander. “But ending the war must be based on our important principles.” That attitude doesn’t raise much hope for future talks.