Since 2001, the United States has been at war with the Taliban. Despite the swift initial victory which drove them from power in Afghanistan, they have proven themselves a stubborn and implacable foe, which is why any talks with the Taliban are doomed from the start.
The Taliban announced Tuesday that they had opened an office in the tiny, Persian Gulf state of Qatar. At the same time, they signalled a willingness to resume negotiations with the United States. Negotiations between the two sides have been on ice since the Taliban abandoned talks almost 18 months ago. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose time in power has been tainted by corruption and an often uncooperative attitude towards the US, has now rejected the proposed talks over the Islamist group’s highly publicized opening of a virtual embassy in Qatar. Of particular concern to the Afghan leadership was the flag that the Taliban initially raised over the new office; the white flag represents the former Taliban government of Afghanistan. In an obvious move to further reinforce the appearance of legitimacy, the Taliban adorned their new office with a sign proclaiming it to be the political office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was the official name of the former Afghani Taliban government.
A statement issued by Karzai’s office said “The way the Taliban office was opened in Qatar and the messages which were sent from it was in absolute contrast with all the guarantees that the United States of America had pledged.” The Afghan President, it appears, may be concerned that the US and the Taliban will treat the proposed talks as a negotiation between two legitimate governments. The US State Department acted quickly to try to dispel that appearance; pressing the Taliban on the issue of the sign and flag. Spokeswoman Jennifer R. Psaki said that Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken with Mr. Karzai, in order to reassure him that the offending sign had been removed. In her statement, Psaki said “The office must not be treated as or represent itself as an embassy or other office representing the Afghan Taliban as an emirate government or sovereign.”
The proposed negotiations – originally intended as trilateral – seem likely to proceed without the participation of the Karzai government. Each of the two remaining participants, however, have conditions that will not be easily accommodated by the other, making it likely that, whilst preliminary discussions may lay the groundwork for higher-level negotiations, these talks may already be, ultimately, doomed from the start. Earlier this year, overtures by the United States were rejected by the Taliban, who insist on the release of five Taliban fighters, currently held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Additionally, the group continues to reject US calls for them to recognize the Afghan Constitution and denounce al-Qaeda. Further undermining any prospect for successful negotiations is the Taliban’s continuation of military operations against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan; just hours after the Taliban opened their new Qatar office, four American soldiers were killed when the convey they were traveling in was Ambushed near Bagram Air Base to the north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The Taliban recognize neither the government of Hamid Karzai, nor the country’s fledgling Constitution. Although the Afghan President has invited them to participate in the electoral process, it is almost certain that, following the withdrawal of US troops, next year, the Taliban will descend on Kabul and sweep Karzai aside – effectively restoring the country to conditions that existed prior to the US invasion, 12 years ago. With no tangible reason for the United States to trust either the current Afghan President or the Taliban, talks appear doomed to failure, even before they start. Afghanistan’s future lies – inevitably – in the hands of the Islamists.
Written by Graham J Noble