What a difference a week makes: On June 13, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was reporting to the world that a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was close to being finalized between the U.S. and Afghan governments. The BSA is a critical piece of the post-2014 puzzle, as it codifies the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan after completion of the multi-national ISAF mission in December of that year. On Wednesday, the Afghans officially took the security lead for the entire country of Afghanistan, with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)maintaining a supporting role. On the same day, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar, with the goal of establishing peace talks with governments of the United States and Afghanistan.
And then the Taliban raised a white flag.
But not just any white flag. THAT white flag: the one that flew over the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. And by raising that flag in Doha, they may have derailed peace talks before they even began.
President Hamid Karzai's response was (predictably) not as circumspect as one would hope from a statesman about to begin delicate negotiations to end a 12 year war. Through his spokesman, Mr. Karzi stated that if the Taliban were going to portray themselves as the Emirate, then the Afghan government was withdrawing from peace talks, as well as suspending negotiations with the U.S. on the BSA.
Much of the current reporting has focused on the suspension of those negotiations for the security agreement, and what this means for the future of international support for Afghanistan. While this is an important consideration, it fails to deal with the two most important questions about Doha: Who are we really talking to in Doha, and, on non-insurgent side of the table, who's doing the talking?
The first question is the most complex, but without answering that, it is unlikely that a lasting peace would result from any negotiations. The "Taliban" have long since ceased to be a monolithic organization capable of the same command and control they exercised when they were running Afghanistan. This is due in large part to ISAF's "capture/kill" campaign, which has been enormously successful at removing mid-to-high level Taliban commanders from the battlefield. While this might seem like a desirable outcome, it has fragmented their operational control to the point that ground level commanders appear to be making decisions without guidance from their superiors in Quetta and elsewhere.
This was starkly evident in the recent attack on the Red Cross in Jalalabad, which has long been an organization committed to aiding anyone wounded on both sides in the conflict, and has had the official respect of Taliban leadership as a result. This attack was denied by the Taliban , which highlights another problem in the Doha talks: the insurgency is not just the Taliban. Yes, they are the largest group, and the group most likely able to effect some kind of political agreement, but they are not alone in battling the government of Afghanistan and NATO forces.
So while we may be talking to ranking members of the Taliban organization, what is unclear is whether those negotiators would be able to enforce any kind of agreement with their forces on the ground. And beyond that, whether they could convince other insurgent actors to participate in that agreement.
The second question that must be answered is this: who's on the other side of the table? Mr. Karzai's issue with U.S. negotiations with the Taliban to this point has been that the Afghans have been effectively sidelined while the U.S. engages in direct talks. Statements this week from Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai seemed to indicate that there would be an official presence from both the Americans and the Afghans, but if the U.S. chooses to forge ahead without an Afghan government presence, it will jeopardize the legitimacy of these talks before they even begin.
It's entirely possible that the U.S. has already decided on a post-Karzai solution. That would mean that talks will continue with or without his blessing as the Americans hope to wait out the 2014 elections and then deal with Mr. Karzai's successor. But in doing so they run the real risk of not securing the necessary security agreements with Mr. Karzai to ensure a lasting foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. And no one, not even ISAF, believes that Afghan security forces are prepared to deal with the insurgency entirely on their own, or that they'll be ready to do so by December of next year. No matter what happens in Doha, stability in Afghanistan will likely be dependent on foreign troops for years to come.