Karzai Gives a Lukewarm Welcome to Taliban Talks
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai said on Wednesday that he welcomed the Taliban’s announcement that they planned to openly pursue peace negotiations with the United States by setting up a political office in Qatar.
But the fact that it took Mr. Karzai almost a full day to respond to the Taliban’s announcement — the most unequivocal signal to date that the insurgents are ready to talk — left lingering doubts about his willingness to play a secondary role in a reconciliation effort that is being propelled, at least for now, by the United States and its allies. Both Washington and Kabul have stressed that the peace process should be led by Afghans.
Adding to the concerns was Mr. Karzai’s use of language portraying “foreigners and their agents” as responsible for driving the violence in Afghanistan. This sentiment has become habitual for the Karzai government, and it plays well domestically, but it is often seen by Mr. Karzai’s foreign backers as petulant and unhelpful at a time when the American-led coalition and the Afghan government should be presenting a united front.
“Afghanistan agrees with the negotiations between the United States and the Taliban that would result in opening an office for the Taliban in Qatar, rescuing Afghanistan from war and conspiracies that are killing our innocent people,” read Mr. Karzai’s statement. “Negotiations are the only way to reach peace and get out of the war and trouble imposed on our people.”
The Taliban’s announcement on Tuesday, after years of denials, that they were ready to press forward with talks offered the prospect of reviving the reconciliation process, and Mr. Karzai’s response on Wednesday gave it more impetus. He had largely shut the process down in September after a man who claimed to be a negotiator representing the Taliban detonated a bomb in his turban, killing Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chief of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council.
Still, the Taliban made clear on Tuesday that they were interested in talking to the United States and its allies, not to the Afghan government, which the insurgents pointedly did not mention in their announcement.
That reflects the reality of the situation more closely than the statements from Washington and Kabul about an Afghan-led peace process. The only substantial talks that took place in the year before Mr. Rabbani’s assassination were between American and German officials on the one hand and a former secretary to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader, on the other. Those talks led directly to the deal for a Taliban office in Qatar.
An American official also met over the summer with a representative of the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally that is believed to have been behind the most audacious attacks in Kabul over the past few years. The Haqqanis are also seen as the insurgent faction most closely aligned with Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s spy service, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence.
The Afghan government played no role in any of those talks, although Mr. Karzai and his top advisers were continually briefed on them, Afghan and American officials have said. When reports surfaced last month that Qatar was willing to be the site for the Taliban office, the Karzai government at first rejected the idea and recalled its ambassador from Qatar. Only under American pressure did the Afghan government grudgingly agree last week to Qatar as the site for the office.
How much progress the talks can make without a vigorous Afghan role is uncertain. American and European officials say they do not think a truly comprehensive peace settlement can be reached unless the Afghan government takes the lead. The aim at the moment is to build up enough momentum to hand the talks over to the Afghans.
The Afghans say they share that goal. “We want the talks to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, which is not yet the case,” Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said on Wednesday by telephone.
“The talks will not be successful, or will not have a positive outcome, if Afghanistan is not leading,” Mr. Faizi said. He complained about other countries’ wielding influence in the talks. He did not say which countries, but he appeared to be referring to Pakistan, which has long sought to dominate events in Afghanistan, in large part to counter the influence of India, its rival.
Afghan officials have voiced concern that Pakistan, where much of the Taliban leadership resides, will use the insurgents as a stalking-horse to strike a deal with Washington, and in the process secure its place in postwar Afghanistan.
American officials see the Qatar office as a way of reducing Pakistan’s influence over the talks. But that strategy appears to have limits: the bulk of the Taliban leadership and their families still rely on safe haven in Pakistan, where they are believed to live and work under the close watch of Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistan has in the past arrested insurgent leaders who sought to open talks without its blessing.
A former American official said on Wednesday that it appeared that Pakistan had accepted the idea of the Qatar office and was willing to let the peace process move forward, despite the recent deterioration in relations between the United States and Pakistan. “We’d be foolish to think this was being done independently, that Pakistan wasn’t playing any role in this,” said the former official, who is being briefed by current officials and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It remains unclear how much ground the Taliban would be willing to give in peace talks, or whether the group simply plans to temporize until NATO ends its combat operations in 2014.
In Kabul on Wednesday, many Afghans were skeptical about the talks. Juma Khan, 35, who sells corn in the shadow of an old mosque on the banks of the Kabul River, said he found it hard to trust the Taliban. “I don’t think they are serious,” he said.