US, Karzai split over Taliban talks
By Gareth Porter
KABUL - On the surface, it would seem unlikely that Afghan President Hamid
Karzai, who presides over a politically feeble government and is highly
dependent on the United States military presence and economic assistance, would
defy the United States on the issue of peace negotiations with the leadership
of the Taliban insurgency.
But a long-simmering conflict between Karzai and key officials of the Barack
Obama administration over that issue came to a head at last week's London
conference, when the Afghan president refused to heed US signals to back off
his proposal to invite the Taliban leaders to participate in a nationwide peace
The peace negotiations issue is embedded in a deeper conflict
over US war strategy, which has provoked broad anger and increasing suspicions
of US motives among Afghans, including Karzai himself.
The current source of tension is Karzai's proposal, first made last November,
to invite Taliban leaders - including Mullah Omar - to a national loya jirga
or grand council meeting aimed at achieving a peace agreement.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by pressing Karzai to demand
far-reaching concessions from the Taliban in advance of the meeting. Clinton's
conditions on Taliban participation included renunciation of al-Qaeda and of
violence and acceptance of the Afghan constitution, conditions that would make
it impossible for leaders of the insurgency to agree to if they are interpreted
On November 23, Clinton said the US had "urged caution and real standards that
are expected to be met by anyone who is engaged in these conversations, so that
whatever process there is can actually further the stability and peace of
Afghanistan, not undermine it".
Instead, Karzai publicly asked the US to join in talks with the Taliban.
Following the issuance of a statement by Mullah Omar on November 25 that
implied the Taliban would negotiate if they did not have to give up their
demand for withdrawal of foreign troops, Karzai said there was an "urgent need"
for negotiations with the Taliban.
In the face of what he knew was US hostility to the idea, Karzai announced on
December 3, "Personally, I would definitely talk to Mullah Omar. Whatever it
takes to bring peace to Afghanistan I, as Afghan president, will do it."
But he added, "I am also aware that it cannot be done by me alone without the
backing of the international community." That is the phrase Karzai uses to
refer to the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
A few days later, Karzai appeared to give way to US pressure against
unconditional talks. He said he wanted to negotiate with Mullah Omar "provided
he renounces violence, provided all connections to al-Qaeda and to terrorist
networks are cut off and denounced and renounced".
But Karzai announced at the London conference that he would invite the
leadership of the Taliban to a loya jirga without specifying that they
would have to meet specific conditions in advance of the meeting.
The Obama administration again reacted with scarcely disguised disapproval. A
State Department spokesman repeated the US line that "anyone who wants to
reconcile and play a more constructive role in Afghanistan's future must accept
the constitution, renounce violence and publicly break with extremist groups
such as al-Qaeda".
Clinton pointedly avoided endorsing the invitation and did not use the word
"reconciliation", which is the term in US counter-insurgency doctrine reserved
for negotiations with insurgent leaders. Those conditions for participation in
negotiations would represent demands for concessions by the Taliban on all key
issues before negotiations even begin.
Karzai showed no signs of turning back from his intention to meet with the
Taliban without conditions. Two days after the London conference, Karzai
announced that he would convene the peace conference in less than six weeks.
And in an implicit response to US demands for conditions on participation in
negotiations, Karzai called on the Taliban not to pose the condition that US
troops must be removed before negotiations could begin.
In fact, a statement by Mullah Omar on November 25 did not say foreign troops
had to be withdrawn before peace talks could begin, but only that the Taliban
would not participate in "negotiations which prolongs and legitimizes the
invader's military presence ..."
Significantly, the Taliban spokesman did not dismiss Karzai's invitation out of
hand, as might have been expected, but announced that the Taliban would make a
decision "soon" on attending the conference.
Asia Times Online has reported that the Taliban would be prepared to engage in
talks immediately if the US were to shelve its plans for a surge of an
additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, (See
Taliban take on the US's surge February 3, 2010.)
The growing divergence of the US's and Karzai's policy toward the Taliban
appears to be embedded in a wider clash over US war policy.
Karzai has not been as enthusiastic as the Obama administration about the
prospects for weakening the Taliban by offering economic incentives for
individual commanders and troops to abandon the insurgency, which he has viewed
as competing with his own emphasis on reaching a peace agreement with the
In an interview with al-Jazeera in early January, Karzai said he would not
request more money to reintegrate individual Taliban fighters into the
Instead, Karzai said he would seek to constrain US military forces in the
country. "We're going to ask the international community to end night-time
raids on Afghan homes," he said, "to stop arresting Afghans, to reduce and
eliminate civilian casualties. We're going to ask them not to have Afghan
Karzai's public demands for an end to US night raids on homes and continued
arrests and detentions aligns his position with that of Taliban officials who
have said those would be among the demands they would raise in peace talks.
Karzai's commitment to a peace accord with the Taliban has been influenced by
his own deep suspicions of US motives in Afghanistan, according to leading
Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir, a former aide to the Northern Alliance
commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by al-Qaeda in September 2001.
In an interview with Inter Press Service, Mir said he believed Karzai's
opposition to US strategy was intensified by the Obama administration's openly
declared hostility toward him in early 2009, and that Karzai had now embraced a
conspiracy theory popular in Afghanistan, that the US had ulterior motives in
its military intervention in the country.
Mir said he attended a meeting with Karzai and about 30 Afghan political
analysts several weeks ago in which the president presented his conspiracy
theory about the US presence to his guests.
"He thinks the United States is here not to fight the Taliban but for something
else," Mir said, and "wants to convince everybody of this".
In November 2008, Karzai outraged the George W Bush administration by offering
a guarantee of the safety of Mullah Omar if he agreed to attend peace
negotiations in Kabul. The State Department spokesman ridiculed the idea,
saying, "One can't imagine" that there would be "any safe passage with respect
to US forces".
Karzai then defiantly posed the choice for "the international community" in a
news conference as being "remove me or leave if they disagree".
Karzai has also proposed taking the names of Taliban leaders off the United
Nations "black list" in order to allow Taliban officials to travel abroad for
the purpose of negotiations.
Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Karzai, said in January that Karzai would
"probably" ask the United Nations to take Mullah Omar's name off the "black
list" of Taliban and former Taliban leaders.
At the London conference, Karzai requested only that five ex-Taliban figures be
taken off the list, but he indicated that he would ask for more deletions in
The US efforts to discourage Karzai from entering into talks with the Taliban
should not be taken as evidence of opposition to such negotiations in the
future, according to an official of the International Security Assistance Force
(ISAF) in Kabul. The Obama administration appears to want to postpone peace
talks until mid-2011 - after it has sought to weaken the Taliban by adding
30,000 more troops.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.