Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been secretly meeting with Taliban operatives in a bid to negotiate peace while refusing to sign a U.S. security deal, a move that is not only testing already strained relations between Washington and Kabul. It also appears to be backfiring.
The New York Times spoke with anonymous Afghan and U.S. officials with knowledge of the clandestine conversations, who said that members of the Taliban reached out to Karzai in November. Around that time Karzai began to step up demands from the U.S., effectively forcing the talks with the Americans into a stalemate. Recently, Karzai said that he won't sign the security deal — which would determine how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan post-2014 to help ensure the Taliban doesn't seize control of the country.
Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi told the Times that the Taliban reached out to the Afghan government just before the loya jirga, a type of grand assembly, gave its approval to a U.S.-Afghanistan deal back in October. According to Faizi, the Taliban talks were fruitful. The New York Times reports:
“The last two months have been very positive,” Mr. Faizi said. He characterized 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.
Others, however, contend that the talks aren't going very well. Again, the Times:
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 reports confirm suspicions that Karzai's recently-increased antipathy towards the U.S. is fueled by a desire to appeal to Taliban leaders. Last month Karzai went so far as to claim that suicide and other attacks, which the Taliban had already taken responsibility for, were actually orchestrated by the U.S. The insistence that Washington was behind the attack makes more sense as an attempt to justify a failing Taliban negotiation than an actual complaint against the U.S. government.
Even if talks between Karzai and the Taliban haven't stalled, its possible that the insurgents Karzai is in contact with aren't that closely tied to the Taliban leadership. According to the Times, the Taliban's organizational structure is kept very secret and it is difficult to keep tabs on who is in with leader Mullah Omar, and who has been forced out. When the U.S. most recently attempted to open communication channels with Taliban leadership by setting up negotiations with Afghanistan and the Taliban in Qatar this past June, Karzai refused to join on the grounds that the insurgent groups Qatari office looked too much like an embassy. At the time, Faizi said that "there is a contradiction between what the U.S. government says and what it does regarding Afghanistan peace talks," which now seems kind of ironic.
There's also the Pakistani Taliban, which was supposed to meet government officials in that country today, but the talks were called off at the last minute.
Karzai is set to step down from office later this year, following presidential elections in April. Attempts to reach an agreement with the Taliban and public criticisms of the U.S. could be a sign of Karzai's aspiration to leave a lasting, positive legacy — something the Times says is very much on his mind. But Karzai may have trouble establishing himself as a positive influence in the eyes of the Afghan people, who have seen massive cuts in U.S. aid.
Today, President Barack Obama will meet with a number of top officials to discuss how best to push forward with the deal.