Omar Samad is senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada
Barely off the ground, The Afghan peace process stalled this week hours after the United States and a Qatar-based Taliban delegation announced the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha to kick off preliminary talks aimed at ending the decade-long Afghan conflict ahead of NATO’s withdrawal in 2014.
For a while it looked like the Taliban were, for the first time, open to eventual dialogue with the government of Hamid Karzai as part of a complex configuration that also involves their benefactors in Pakistan and behind-the-scenes diplomatic endeavors by Western and regional actors.
However, after an initial outburst of enthusiasm, Mr. Karzai stole the thunder and issued a strongly worded statement pointing to “contradictions between acts and statements made by the U.S.” Mr. Karzai realized that the new Taliban office had the aura of an embassy, and that the Talban are more inclined to by-pass the Kabul government and promote their own stature.
He even went a step further and suspended the critically important bilateral talks with Washington on a post-2014 security and defense agreement. The talks are expected to result in the deployment of a residual international force authorized to fight terrorism and train and assist Afghan forces.
Mr. Karzai is right to express displeasure with what appears to be a diplomatic gaffe that would have unnecessarily elevated the Taliban’s stature and given them a diplomatic boost at the detriment of other Afghans.
He also called for the “Afghanizaton” of the process, but has done little to gain overall domestic backing for his efforts.
Afghans in general are skeptical about talks with a brutal and oppressive extremist group that aims to re-establish the “Islamic Emirate”, as was the case in the 1990s.
The country’s political groupings prefer to see more consensus-building among non-Taliban groups at home, more co-ordination with the outside world, a change of policy in Islamabad, and negotiating from a position of strength.
Afghans are equally suspicious of Mr. Karzai’s vacillation and unstable relations with the U.S. at a critical time when relations suffer from a deficit of trust.
They also expect Washington to stand by the red lines set out two years ago demanding that the Taliban respect the spirit of the Afghan constitution and commit to the gains made by the country over the past decade, especially in terms of women’s rights and basic freedoms.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s conversations with Mr. Karzai and urgent visit to Qatar this week should aim to restore a certain level of trust between the various parties and prod them toward initial talks. More importantly, Washington needs to play a more concerted role to put the bilateral talks back on track.
If the U.S. is only concerned about its own exit and Taliban ties to al-Qaeda, then the peace process will not only lose Afghan support, but could easily lead to a messy withdrawal of NATO troops, followed by continued conflict, which, in turn, will bolster radical and terrorist groups across the wider region.