A senior American diplomat has issued an unusually blunt denial of rumours of a U.S. plan to break up Afghanistan as part of a peace deal with the Taliban.
The statement issued Tuesday by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, reflects the intensity of recent speculation about secret talks to end the war in Afghanistan.
American officials recently confirmed a flurry of talks with all three major insurgent factions: the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami and even the notorious Haqqani network, whose leaders are named on U.S. terrorist lists.
Such direct negotiations would have been hard to imagine in recent years, as U.S. strategy focused on pushing back the insurgents with military might and building up the capacity of the Afghan government. Now that U.S. troops have started to withdraw, however, some Afghans are embracing conspiracy theories about the American exit strategy.
Mr. Crocker tried to address those rumours head on.
"Rumours that the United States has a plan to divide Afghanistan or change its form of government are, frankly speaking, lies that dishonour the sacrifice of more than 1,800 American service members who have died in the cause of a unified Afghanistan, governed by its constitution," the ambassador's statement said.
Tensions have existed for centuries in Afghanistan between the predominately Pashto-speaking south and the Dari-speaking north. Speculation about partition escalated anew this month after four powerful Afghan politicians f met with members of the U.S. Congress in Berlin. The powerbrokers, part of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban during its years in power, issued a joint statement calling for a decentralization of power from Kabul to the provinces. While not overtly suggesting partition or federalism, that statement represented "a push for decentralization [that]was probably never made so prominently," said Thomas Ruttig, a leading Afghanistan expert, in his blog for the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry reacted sharply to the Berlin meeting, accusing the United States of interference in the country's internal affairs and warning that such meetings should not happen again.
Even the Taliban expressed outrage, rejecting the notion of partition on the basis that the insurgents would never be satisfied with only partial conquest of Afghanistan. The group "rejects the poisonous propaganda of the enemy which depicts as if the Islamic Emirate will be content with having control of a few provinces," a Taliban statement said.
Another Taliban press release declared victory in the war against NATO and Afghan forces that is now in its 10th year, saying that international forces were now "compelled" to start negotiations at a new office the Taliban have been invited to open in the Persian Gulf country of Qatar.
In his comments on Tuesday, Mr. Crocker sought to dispel any fears from Afghan leaders that any talks with the Taliban in Qatar would exclude the Afghan government or undermine its authority over the whole of the country.
"Let me also address another false and absurd rumour: that the United States is seeking a secret deal with the Taliban at the expense of the Afghan government and people," Mr. Crocker said.
Like other American officials, the U.S. diplomat continued to call the negotiations an "Afghan-led process," despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai's obvious discomfort with talks happening outside the borders of his country and beyond its control. Afghanistan withdrew its ambassador to Qatar last month to protest against that country's role in trying to start negotiations.