When the Qatari government (blessed by Washington) allowed the Taliban to open an office in Doha this week that had the Taliban flag flying outside and signs everywhere proclaiming the office to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai took the symbolism as an affront.
For Karzai and his government, the announcement, the flags and the signs brought the enemy unwanted legitimacy. Instead of being treated as insurgents or terrorists, the Taliban got the symbols of statehood. Just a week earlier, Karzai had been in Doha speaking at the Brookings Institution’s annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum, clearly warning the Americans and the Qataris not to give the Taliban these symbolic victories.
So when Karzai on Wednesday announced that his government will not participate in any peace negotiations with the Taliban under these ground rules and furthermore suspended the talks with the United States on a long-term strategic agreement to provide for a post-2014 security relationship between America and Afghanistan it wasn’t exactly a surprise. After all, he would have been savaged by his own supporters if he had done anything less.
Still, it presents one of several hurdles on the road to peace. After years of putting the onus on the Taliban for standing in the way of peace, this latest turn of events places the onus on our ally: the man we handpicked to be the President of Afghanistan.
Karzai knows he has a weak hand as the leader of a small, poor country. But he is not afraid to let his views be known. And, beyond that, he doesn’t handle perceived slights from Washington well. But Karzai overestimates American interest in a long-term partnership with Afghanistan. He believes the U.S. wants long-term access to Afghan military bases to continue drone operations against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and to conduct intelligence surveillance over Pakistan, Iran, and other parts of Central Asia. But he misjudges just how badly many Americans simply want to get out of the war and abandon the Afghans to their fate. Thus he plays his weak hand with a bluntness that often backfires. Washington will now undoubtedly try to smooth things over and persuade Kabul that its interests will not be sold out down the negotiations road.
The Taliban’s patrons, the Pakistani army and its notorious ISI intelligence service, are undoubtedly very pleased with the outcome. Mullah Omar, who lives under ISI protection in Pakistan, would never have agreed to the Doha opening without ISI approval. They control his life and the lives of the Taliban team in Doha. As the former head of Afghan intelligence, Amrullah Saleh, likes to point out, the Taliban negotiators fly home to Karachi whenever they want to see their boss or their families. They are not independent players.
In terms of the Pakistani generals, they believe time is on their side in Afghanistan, that America has already lost the war and that their clients will prevail. The generals control the Afghan portfolio in Pakistan and will not let Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif interfere with their plans. Sharif probably has no plans to do so; he told me years ago that he fears the Taliban and the army will replace him with a bearded fanatic if he crosses their red lines. He is almost certainly right.
Negotiations with the Taliban are a good idea. A political process that helps to reconcile Afghans together is badly needed. But nothing in Afghanistan is ever easy and the start of a political process to end a conflict that is now more than three decades old was always going to be tough, and so expectations should be kept low and friction expected.
The Afghans should run the show. The Qataris need to recede from the stage, Kabul will never trust them. Karzai will probably back down in a few weeks, after all he needs the post-2014 deal with us more than we do and his standing is wobbly at home. We have a prisoner in Taliban hands we want to get home and a prisoner swap that trades him for some Guantánamo prisoners is probably a good deal. In diplomacy symbols and flags matter greatly, however. And it’s been a tough start.