No sooner had the US and the Taliban signaled their intent to resume talks this week than an eruption by Hamid Karzai threw the process into disarray. It was not the first case when the US client has tried to turn the tables. But if the Obama administration and NATO want to complete their troop withdrawals in 2014, a final showdown with Karzai appears increasingly necessary.
Karzai has allies for his obstructionism within his client regime, fattened by US military contracts, as well as diehard sections of the Republican Party and the intelligence world. The lines between these vested interests are hard to draw, especially with the CIA handing Karzai "tens of millions" in cash for his patronage payroll. The bankrupted Kabul Bank was another source of millions siphoned into the foreign bank accounts belonging to cronies of the client state. Given these scandalous and self-serving arrangements, Karzai will not step down from power, much less share power with his adversaries, without a dramatic fight.
The initial announcement of the US-Taliban talks skirted the question of prison exchanges, which has long been seen as the major obstacle; five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the single US soldier held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. But just hours after the announcement, pages of the mainstream media were filled with lurid and detailed resumes of the possible detainees to be released, all of them with extensive terrorist credentials. House Republicans, led by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, quickly opposed any return of the Taliban detainees to the battlefield. Charlie Savage of the New York Times noted briefly that none of the Taliban have ever been tried, the evidence against them has never been examined impartially, and that they deny some of the charges. But once again Obama was faced with a massive wall of political blame, unless the five detainees might be willing to stay in Qatar upon their release.
While that was the main objection of many seeking to scuttle the talks, Karzai was viscerally inflamed over the threat to his already-precarious authority. Until now, the US has backed Karzai’s claim to be the sole representative of the Afghan government and people, despite his coming to power with foreign support in a civil war that has continued for a decade. The US-Karzai policy has been to block the Taliban from any meaningful political role in Afghanistan’s future governance. The US and Karzai are demanding in diplomacy what they cannot achieve on the battlefield, the Taliban or its surrogates allocated a token role as an unarmed force in a NATO-controlled Afghanistan, which is a non-starter.
On their side, the Taliban define themselves as being the legitimate government of Afghanistan, overthrown by a foreign invasion a decade ago. They are willing to make concessions – for example, on banning Al Qaeda sanctuaries, on supporting women’s and educational rights beyond their previous stands. But any recognition of a role for Karzai and his regime remains a card they will decide to play last, not as a precondition.
Karzai was outraged when he saw the Taliban raising their banner at the Qatar talks proclaiming themselves the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” They were reasserting their former status as the country’s government, establishing a counter-hegemonic alternative to Karzai, which Karzai could not tolerate. For the moment at least, the Americans backed him. The Taliban lowered their flag to that it would not appear in Karzai’s view on television. It was a conciliatory gesture, as such gestures go, clearly implying that the Taliban mean the talks to go forward.
Why Die for Karzai?
What is clear to any conflict resolution expert is that these seemingly insurmountable differences will have to be adjusted in the talks ahead, not used as ultimatums to block the opening of diplomacy. In Northern Ireland, for example, the Irish nationalists and British unionists eventually created a de facto bi-national entity containing two rival and contradictory sovereignties. In South Vietnam, the National Liberation Front eventually declared themselves a Provisional Revolutionary Government, and the 1973 accords recognized areas where the PRG – and the North Vietnamese armed forces – were entitled to govern and fly their flag by virtue of their control on the ground.
In an important parallel with Afghanistan, the PRG negotiated a temporary compromise while the US withdrew its troops, knowing that the client government of Nguyen Van Thieu could not remain in power without the Americans. The Saigon regime was destroyed in a subsequent offensive in 1975, and Congress prevented the Nixon administration from re-intervening with air power. That is the fate that Karzai fears most.
The question the public should be asking is, aside from face-saving reputational purposes, why should another single American die for Karzai? The US policy should be to cut the best deal possible before American troops have fully departed. The only purpose of the Karzai stall is to thwart the withdrawal of US and Western troops for as long as he possibly can, in effect making him the Controller instead of the Client.
The American national interest lies in leaving a power-sharing arrangement behind as the American forces withdraw, an arrangement with or without Karzai, and not one controlled by the Taliban either, since they remain deeply unpopular with large blocs of the Afghan people. Who should be included in this power-sharing arrangement, and who its guarantors might be, is the agenda that will have to be addressed urgently, since America’s hard power wanes by the day.
For more, please see also by Tom Hayden, "U.S. to Talk with Taliban."