Afghanistan Peace Deal: Taliban Talks Hit Deadlock
By Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul and Julian Borger
Western hopes of leaving Afghanistan within reach of a peace deal when Nato troops pull out in 2014 are dimming, with planned negotiations in Qatar at a stalemate and Pakistan cutting back on support for talks. Afghans and foreigners across the political spectrum have been pushing hard for negotiations for several years, driven by concerns that the already-bloody insurgency could spiral into full-blown civil war when foreign forces have left. But as western generals and politicians who once dreamed of crushing the Taliban militarily have reconciled themselves to the idea of negotiating instead, the insurgents themselves have remained more elusive, attacking top government negotiators and refusing to publicly embrace talks.
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, visited the Qatari capital, Doha, at the weekend, where a handful of Taliban and their families have set up base since 2011, with the blessing of Washington, as diplomats seek neutral ground for potential negotiations.
The emir of the tiny state, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, pledged his support for the peace process and unveiled plans for a Qatari embassy in Kabul, helping allay some Afghan suspicions about where the Gulf nation’s loyalties lie. But notably absent from the two-day trip was any meeting with some of the Qatar-based Taliban themselves, who have denounced Karzai as the head of a “stooge administration”. “Nobody from the Taliban side met with Karzai,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said bluntly after the visit, which also included a trip to an art museum to see an exhibition of Afghan handicrafts. Also looming over both Karzai’s weekend travels and wider Afghan and western efforts to get around a table with the Taliban is the ambivalence of the Pakistani government, which in recent weeks appears to have backed away from support for the process. “Unfortunately Pakistan today is changing the goalposts on its support for the peace process once again,” said the Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, Janan Mosazai. “Pakistan somehow decided now to put down certain preconditions for its support for the peace process which are completely unacceptable to Afghanistan and to any other independent country.” The Afghan government says the demands are that ties with India be severed, that army officers be sent to Pakistan for training and that a strategic partnership deal be signed immediately. The deterioration in ties has already had an impact: one senior Afghan source said flights organised by Pakistan for militants to Doha had already been halted.
Without transport for negotiators, talks are unlikely to get very far, and even if some do find a way to shuttle back and forth, the wider Taliban movement would be likely to struggle to directly oppose a government it relies on for shelter and other support.
A string of initiatives including Pakistani releases of Taliban prisoners and plans for a meeting of senior clerics from both countries meant the year began in a haze of enthusiasm that now looks premature; behind the scenes, little has changed in a country determined to ensure a friendly regime across its eastern borders. “When optimism was prevailing about Pakistani attitudes, our human intelligence suggested that – on the ground – this optimism was not well-founded, and unfortunately we were proved right,” the official said.
Many western diplomats say they are convinced that the Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Kayani, often seen as more powerful in security affairs than the civilian government, genuinely believes it is more important to have a stable Afghanistan than one that is compliant with Islamabad’s interests. But they also questioned whether that change in attitude had made much real difference. A US source with long experience of negotiating with Pakistan said: “Part of the problem is that when Kayani gives an order, is it followed three levels down?”
The Taliban in 2011 seized the chance to set up a base beyond their risky Pakistani headquarters, vulnerable to both pressure from Islamabad and cross-border raids by US forces. Qatar was attractive, not least because the movement has long looked to the Gulf for funding and, in the past, political support. Around 10 men have set up home with their families, a source with knowledge of the process said, and others come and go. But there has been no official confirmation that they plan to open an office or are willing to talk peace, despite expectations a few months ago that they would confirm their intentions with a statement welcoming peace talks.
That would have been a huge step for an often fractured movement that has sworn it won’t talk either to Karzai or while foreign forces are still on Afghan soil. The Taliban leadership is still smarting from rank-and-file anger over a failed prisoner exchange initiative with the US more than year ago. But the lack of any official embrace of the process is fuelling US and Afghan fears about the Taliban’s true intentions in a place close to potential donors and convenient for putting out diplomatic feelers in an often sympathetic region. Karzai tacitly acknowledged the problem in a meeting with Qatari businessmen during the trip. “The Taliban peace process, when it is officially announced, the opportunities will multiply hugely,” Afghanistan’s Tolo TV channel quoted him telling the exclusive group.
The Afghan government, which has been open about the fact that it would prefer Turkey or Saudi Arabia as a mediator, reacted badly to initial plans for an office in Doha. Karzai recalled his ambassador to Qatar and denounced the venture as scheming behind his back. He has softened his stance since then, but his government has repeatedly warned that it will tolerate the Taliban office strictly as an address for peace talks, and only if it is not used for fundraising or diplomatic activities. Western diplomats have also said their support for a Taliban presence in Qatar will be strained if the movement does not take more concrete steps towards embracing the idea of talks publicly, although they remain confident of behind-the-scenes support for negotiations.
“There isn’t anyone who doesn’t think that a significant majority of them want to take part in the peace process,” a senior western official with knowledge of the talks said. The group’s dispersed, fugitive leadership made for slow decision making, the official added, but longer term there was still real hope of a peace deal, although it would be likely to come on the brink of Nato’s departure or later. “It is conceivable that between 12 and 18 months from now the world could look different from a Taliban perspective,” the official said. “Once Karzai has left office, with western troops vanishing, and the Afghan police and army doing a relatively decent job providing security, it might be easier for the Taliban to sell negotiations to their foot soldiers.”
Emma Graham-Harrison is the Guardian’s Afghanistan and Pakistan editor. She has lived in Kabul for two years, and was previously Afghanistan bureau chief for Reuter’s news agency. She has a degree in Chinese Studies and spent nearly 6 years…