Karzai's secret contact with the Taliban rankles US

Obama’s frustration rises as Afghanistan refuses to sign a security pact with the US.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban about reaching a peace agreement without the involvement of his US and Western allies, further corroding already strained relations with the United States.
The secret contacts appear to help explain a string of actions by Karzai that seem intended to antagonise his US backers, Western and Afghan officials said.

In recent weeks, Karzai has continued to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington that he negotiated, insisted on releasing hardened Taliban militants from prison and distributed what he claimed evidence of US war crimes.

The clandestine contacts with the Taliban have borne little fruit, according to people who have been told about them. But they have helped undermine the remaining confidence between the US and Karzai, making the already messy endgame of the Afghan conflict even more volatile.

Support for the war effort in Congress has deteriorated sharply, and US officials say they are uncertain whether they can maintain even minimal security cooperation with Karzai’s government or its successor after coming elections.

Frustrated by Karzai’s refusal to sign the security agreement, which would clear the way for US troops to stay on for training and counterterrorism work after the end of the year, president Barack Obama has summoned his top commanders to the White House for a meeting on Tuesday to consider the future of the US mission in Afghanistan.

Western and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the peace contacts, said that the outreach was apparently initiated by the Taliban in November, a time of deepening mistrust between Karzai and his allies. Karzai seemed to jump at what he believed was a chance to achieve what the Americans were unwilling or unable to do, and reach a deal to end the conflict - a belief that few in his camp shared.

Aimal Faizi, the spokesman for Karzai, acknowledged the secret contacts with the Taliban and said they were continuing. “The last two months have been very positive,” Faizi said. He characterised the contacts as among the most serious the presidential palace has had since the war began. “These parties were encouraged by the president’s stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards,” he said.

But other Afghan and Western officials said that the contacts had fizzled, and that whatever the Taliban may have intended at the outset, they no longer had any intention of negotiating with the Afghan government. They said that top Afghan officials had met with influential Taliban leaders in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in recent weeks, and were told that any prospects of a peace deal were now gone.

The Afghan and Western officials questioned whether the interlocutors that Karzai was in contact with actually had connections to the Taliban movement’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose blessing would be needed for any peace deal the group might strike.

Though there have been informal contacts between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders since the very early days of the war, the insurgents’ opaque and secretive leaders have made their intentions difficult to discern. Afghan officials have struggled in recent years to find genuine Taliban representatives, and have flitted among a variety of current and former insurgent leaders, most of whom had only tenuous connections to Omar and his inner circle, US and Afghan officials have said.

Incurring the wrath

The only known genuine negotiating channel to those leaders was developed by US and German diplomats, who spent roughly two years trying to open peace talks in Qatar. The diplomats repeatedly found themselves incurring the wrath of Karzai, who saw the effort as an attempt to circumvent him; he tried behind the scenes to undercut it.

Then, when a US diplomatic push led to the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, Karzai lashed out publicly at the United States. Afghan officials said that to them, the office looked far too much like the embassy of a government-in-exile, with its own flag and a nameplate reading “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Within days, the Qatar initiative stalled, and Karzai was fuming at what he saw as a plot by the US to cut its own deal with Pakistan and the Taliban without him.

In the wake of the failure in Qatar, Afghan officials redoubled their efforts to open their own channel to Omar, and by late autumn, Karzai apparently believed those efforts were succeeding. Some senior Afghan officials say they did not share his confidence, and their doubts were shared by US officials in Kabul and Washington.

Both Karzai and US officials hear the clock ticking. US forces are turning over their combat role to Afghan forces and preparing to leave Afghanistan this year, and the campaigning for the Afghan national election in April has begun. An orderly transition of power in an Afghanistan that can contain the insurgency on its own would represent the culmination of everything that the US has tried to achieve in the country.

“We’ve been through numerous cycles of ups and downs in our relations with President Karzai over the years,” Ambassador James B Cunningham said during a briefing with reporters last week. “What makes it a little different this time is that he is coming to the end of his presidency, and we have some very important milestones for the international community and for Afghanistan coming up in the next couple of months.”
Karzai has been increasingly concerned with his legacy, officials say. When discussing the impasse with the Americans, he has repeatedly alluded to his country’s troubled history as a lesson in dealing with foreign powers.

He recently likened the security agreement to the Treaty of Gandamak, a one-sided 1879 agreement that ceded frontier lands to the British administration in India and gave them tacit control over Afghan foreign policy. He has publicly assailed US policies as the behaviour of a “colonial power,” though diplomats and military officials say he has been more cordial in private.

Karzai reacted angrily to a negative portrayal of him in a recent memoir by the former Defence Secretary Robert M Gates, and he is still bitter about the 2009 presidential election, when hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots were disqualified and, as he sees it, the Americans forced him into an unnecessary runoff against his closest opponent.

In some respects, Karzai’s outbursts have been an effort to speak to Afghans who want him to take a hard line against the Americans, including many ethnic Pashtuns, who make up nearly all of the Taliban. With the US-led coalition on its way out and American influence waning, Karzai is more concerned with bridging the chasms of Afghan domestic politics than with his foreign allies’ interests.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
GET IT
Comments (+)