by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 5, Sha'ban, 1434)
With the opening of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, Hamid Karzai feels he will be left to hang high and dry if the Americans strike a deal with the resistance group. He has hit his now-familiar tantrum to be noticed. Will he get anywhere with it?
Hamid Karzai’s worries are real and huge. He feels the ground from under his feet is slipping as the Americans desperately seek negotiations with the Taliban. They are the only players in town that really matter. With the opening of their office in Doha, Qatar — albeit after many years’ delay — US officials are scrambling to meet the resistance group. Karzai hit his now-routine tantrum when the Taliban put a plaque on the front door of their Doha office that read: “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” He announced suspension of talks with the Americans over the security agreement that would allow US troops to stay in Afghanistan after their “formal withdrawal” from the country at the end of 2014.
American Secretary of State John Kerry spent several hours talking to Karzai on June 19 to calm him down. By the end of the day, Karzai had been sufficiently pacified and Kerry then pressed the Qataris to get the Taliban to change their name plate. What’s in a name, as Lady McBeth would say; “a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet” or foul, depending on one’s opinion of the Taliban. One must, however, give them credit; they have knocked the wind out of US arrogance and forced them to sue for peace. This is an incredible turn of events in the South Asian region and Afghanistan has once again proved a graveyard of empires.
In October 2001, when the US launched its war of aggression on Afghanistan, it was thought the Taliban would be wiped out. Before the US attacked, a Western reporter had asked Mullah Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader, what would he do now? He replied in a matter of fact manner, “Afghanistan is a vast country. We will fight the Americans in the valleys and mountains of Afghanistan and insha’allah, we will ultimately prevail.” The Western reporter looked at Mullah Omar with incredulity and one could almost hear him mutter, “What planet does this man live on?” He has finally got his answer, if he cares to listen.
After 12 years of war, the Americans are desperate to get the hell out of Afghanistan, or at least from direct combat that is not only hugely costly but also extremely unpopular with the American public. A recent survey showed two-thirds of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan was not worth it. They want out; so does US President Barack Obama but the big question is, how to get out without making it look like a rout! Seeking a deal with the Taliban is the only way to get out with some degree of face-saving.
Pakistan is the other important player whose policy will have huge impact on US withdrawal. Immediately after it was announced on June 18 that the Taliban were opening their office in Doha, Islamabad welcomed the decision. The US followed suit and said it will launch talks within a week. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid was quoted by Agence France Presse (AFP) as saying that the group intended “to open dialogue between the Taliban and the world.” Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said, “Pakistan welcomes the announcement of the opening of a Taliban office in Doha for the purpose of bringing peace to Afghanistan and the region.” It will not be easy as the Karzai tantrum shows.
The announcement about talks was made the same day as the US handed over security responsibility to the Afghan Army in Kabul. A few days earlier the top US commander in Afghanistan General Joseph Dunford had said talks with the Taliban were essential to bring about peace to the war-torn country as well as the broader South and Central Asian region. He should have added, for the safe withdrawal of US troops as well. Aware that Pakistan has considerable influence with the Taliban, the US is relying on it to facilitate the talks. It is interesting to note that the Americans have dropped the demand for Taliban to stop fighting and accept the Afghan constitution before talks can begin.
Having secured their primary objective of forcing the Americans to talk to them directly without any preconditions, the Taliban appear all reasonable now. Their spokesman in Qatar, Mohammad Naeem confirmed in an interview with the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that their leader Mullah Omar had said the government they form would include all Afghans. “It should be a government in which all our people and their representatives can participate and be a part of. It should give Afghans the hope that it is a government for all of them and this country belongs to all of them.” Naeem said the group would welcome anyone, even a representative of Karzai’s government, to come and talk to them in Doha.
Obama is aware of the challenges he faces in Afghanistan as he tries to balance conflicting demands. The US has two primary but conflicting objectives: safe “withdrawal” of the bulk of troops, and military bases in Afghanistan after 2014 where some 15,000–20,000 troops would be stationed. There is a third issue as well: release of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier captured by the Taliban in 2009. His release is important to Obama; he cannot leave an American soldier in the hands of the enemy. The Taliban have demanded that five of their comrades held in Guantanamo Bay be released before the American soldier will be freed. A deal over the prisoner swap was scuttled after US sergeant Robert Bales went on a rampage in the Panjwei district of Qandahar in March 2012 killing 16 civilians, 9 of them children. He then set their bodies on fire. American troops have perpetrated other horrible crimes in Afghanistan: from bombing and killing people at wedding parties to shooting and murdering children collecting wood or merely playing soccer.
The fact that the Taliban are still willing to sit and talk to the Americans reflects their magnanimity. Contrast this with US behavior after the attacks of 9/11. While there is much controversy about the identity of the perpetrators, even if we accept the American allegation about Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, the Afghans were not in anyway involved in the attack or had any knowledge of it. A survey two years ago found that 90% of Afghans had never heard of 9/11. Yet the mad superpower went on a rampage and bombed Afghanistan back into the Stone Age.
Much has changed since those heady days when the US went on a bombing spree. The Taliban gradually regrouped and have now become an effective fighting force giving the Americans a beating of their lives. The Taliban have proved the superiority of iman (faith-commitment) over weapons. This is what explains the gradually paring down of American demands. They no longer talk about the Taliban abandoning their struggle although the group has indicated it is willing to talk about it in the context of an overall agreement.
Obama is also aware that after US troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan fighting may erupt but his defeated and demoralized army is in no position to do anything about that. He admitted as much at his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on June 19. “Even as we go through some, frankly, difficult negotiations around what it would mean for the international community to have an ongoing training and advising presence after 2014, we still believe that you’ve got to have a parallel track to at least look at the prospect of some sort of political reconciliation,” Obama said. “Whether that bears fruit, whether it actually happens, or whether post 2014 there’s going to continue to be fighting, as there was before ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces got into Afghanistan, that’s a question that only the Afghans can answer.” So Obama has admitted he cannot do anything about the situation in Afghanistan after 2014. This is a clear admission of defeat.
The US demand is now reduced to Taliban cutting their links with al-Qaeda. That should not be difficult since there are no al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. The Taliban could just as easily turn around and demand that the Americans cut their deep links with al-Qaeda. After all, most of them are in Syria and Iraq, aided and abetted by the Americans to cause havoc in those countries. That is why the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, Muhammad Naeem, had no hesitation in saying that the group will not allow Afghan territory to be used to attack another country.
This may prove problematic for the Americans since their continued presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 is meant to destabilize China, Russia and Iran. The nine US military bases that Karzai talked about in May, much to the embarrassment of the Americans, are for this purpose. The Taliban can be expected to keep their word and it is highly unlikely that they will agree to the presence of foreign troops on their soil.
Naeem told the RFE/RL, “Our policy is clear. We have said that the problem in Afghanistan has two important aspects. One aspect is related to the occupation of Afghanistan by foreign forces; this is the important part. Until that issue is resolved, we see no benefit in talking about solving the internal aspect. We will think about addressing the internal aspect after sorting out our problems with the foreigners.” But he kept the door to negotiations open inviting everyone — the Americans, Karzai and his representatives or anyone else — who wishes to talk to them to come to their office in Doha. “We have opened this office because our opponents said they wanted to solve this problem through a political process. Now this is our response to that.”