Who Played Havoc with the Qatar Talks? Five possible scenarios to explain the mess
The bizarre turn of events following the opening of the Taleban office in Doha has led many to wonder whether the affair could have been deliberately sabotaged. Was it possible it had just been badly handled? So rapidly did the optimism about potential talks give way to bewilderment at their suspension, and the Taleban’s re-appearance under a blaze of international media coverage end in their re-disappearance. It was an embarrassing setback for the US, the Taleban and the host nation, Qatar, although the Afghan government, which had never been keen on the Qatar option in the first place, was more likely to have been quietly pleased. Borhan Osman and Kate Clark have been piecing together the sequence of events and have come up with five possible scenarios of how exactly it all went so badly wrong.
Scrutinising the mess around the Taleban office in Doha in hindsight does deliver some interesting contradictions and questions. First, we tried to disentangle the sequence of events and the initial (re)actions of the different parties involved.
Who said what, when?
On 17 July, President Karzai, after consulting with jihadi leaders and politicians in the Presidential Palace, had agreed to the opening of the office. He reaffirmed this stance on the morning of 18 June, saying the government’s High Peace Council would soon travel to Doha for talks with the Taleban and that they had no-preconditions; however, the negotiations should soon be transferred to Afghanistan, they should result in ending violence and they should not be misused by foreigners against the ‘national interests’ (see here) and here).
On 18 June, ahead of the opening, un-named US ‘senior administration officials’ gave a long background briefing to White House journalists (who were in Northern Ireland for the G8 meeting, as was President Barack Obama) on the opening of ‘a Taliban office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations with the Afghan government in pursuit of reconciliation.’ This was embargoed until 18.30 Kabul time – roughly the time of the opening.
In late afternoon the same day, the Taleban office in Doha officially opened in a ceremony attended by Qatari officials and over a dozen Taleban representatives. A press conference was beamed across the world and unofficial video showed a street signboard bearing the inscription ‘Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ being unveiled and the Taleban’s flag raised to the tunes of the movement’s ‘national anthem’. (Read AAN’s dispatch on the opening here)
As the news of the office opening broke, various people were quoted making welcoming statements. The three main news agencies, AP, Reuters and AFP, presented some of their comments in such a way that it looked as if they had been made after the opening.
For example, President Karzai, whose statement had been released that morning, was quoted by AP with no indication that this was before the opening.
Similarly, all three news agencies quoted un-named senior US officials welcoming the talks (they said Obama and Kerry had been personally involved in working with Karzai to get the opening, that a US delegation would first meet the Taleban and then the High Peace Council would, that they acknowledged the process would be “complex, long and messy” because of the ongoing level of distrust between the parties and they would continue to push the Taleban to break ties with al-Qaida, end violence and accept Afghanistan’s constitution — including protections for women and minorities and so on.
The source was the already quoted pre-opening background briefing. Readers could be forgiven for assuming the officials were speaking after having watched the opening and, moreover, that they were in Qatar – AAN certainly did (although when we reported the officials, in the dispatch earlier cited, we did accurately source them to Washington and to that morning).
A chorus of other welcomes were reported: from Obama – an ‘important first step toward reconciliation’, but predicted there would be bumps along the way;(1) Secretary of State John Kerry – ‘It’s good news. We’re very pleased with what has taken place’; the top US and ISAF commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, ‘this war is going to have to end with political reconciliation’ so he, ‘would be supportive of any positive movement’; and UK Prime Minister, David Cameron – ‘the right thing to do’. Again, it looked like they had been made knowing that the Taleban flag had been raised and the office officially opened in the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
By the following day, anger and confusion had erupted. President Karzai let it be known just how furious all the regalia of statehood displayed by the Taleban during the Doha office opening had made them. He suspended talks on a bilateral security agreement with the US – a National Security Council press release said Afghanistan objected to Washington’s ‘contradictions between actions and words’. The president also rushed to convene the same meeting of jihadi leaders and politicians he had consulted on 17 June, this time to decry the opening of the Taleban office. According to two participants who spoke to AAN, the Palace actually issued the final statement of the meeting one hour before it took place. The statement also brought names of 50 notables, many of whom had actually failed to turn up. The statement said: ‘The opening of Taliban office in Qatar, the way it was opened and messages it contained, contradicts the guarantees given by the US to Afghanistan… The consultative meeting decided …not [to] take part in the Qatar negotiations.’
The Americans issued statements saying Karzai was ‘justifiably’ upset since some agreements had been violated during the opening. Kerry rang Kabul twice after the debacle, promising the flag and name-plate would go. He also threatened that the office could be closed if the talks did not come back on track.
The Qatari government removed the plaque and issued a statement saying the name agreed upon (NB using the passive tense) for the office had been the ‘Taleban political office in Doha’, not the ‘political office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. The Qataris also removed the flagpole inside the office. This was an embarrassing backtrack for Qatar as its Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ali bin Fahd al-Hajri, had stood with a Taleban envoy in front of a banner announcing the opening using the highly sensitive ‘Islamic Emirate’ name and with the Taleban flag flying beside the podium.
The Taleban, in turn, suspended talks. The usually well informed on the Taleban Bost News Agency quoted an un-named senior Taleban official on 23 June 2013 as saying they were threatening to withdraw from talks altogether. He accused the US government of ‘fail[ing] to adhere to their commitments while trying to appease other parties’. The Taleban’s official website on 1 July also criticised the US government for being indecisive about the peace talks and ‘wasting time’ by bringing in irrelevant excuses. This was reminiscent of the Taleban’s justification for suspending the first round of US-Taleban talks held in Doha since late 2011 in March 2012 (see AAN dispatch about this here).
Amid all these comment, all parties refer to agreements on the status of the office (name and flag), but what exactly were the agreements among the different parties – Taleban, Afghan government, US and Qatar?
Both the Afghan government and the Taleban say the terms for operating the office were set out in documents signed between the Qatari government and the Taleban representatives there.
On the government side, the presidential spokesman, Aimal Faizi, stated in an article for the BBC’s Pashto service the terms had been discussed between the US and the Afghan governments since late May when James F. Dobbins, the new US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, visited Kabul in his first trip in this position. Faizi also wrote Dobbins had shown Afghan officials draft documents to be signed between Qatar and the Taleban. And Faizi wrote further that Dobbins had rejected the idea of a bilateral memorandum of understanding which Kabul had wanted with Qatar which would have regulated how the office would function. The Afghan government, Faizi added, brought forward questions about the name and status of the proposed Taleban office. Such concerns were answered in a letter President Obama sent to President Karzai on 14 June which said the Doha office should be for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) and the Afghan Taleban and that ‘the office should not be considered as an embassy or one which represents the Emirate, [its] government or the Taleban’s rule’ (translated from Pashto by the authors). Faizi wrote that Obama’s letter said the office would be opened on 18 June. It is this letter and the discussions with Dobbins that President Karzai refers to as guarantees given by the US that the office would not be a ‘Taleban embassy’.
A New York Times report said the White House would not confirm or deny the existence of the letter, but an administration official, ‘speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Mr Obama had sent one offering such assurances.’
But were ‘these guarantees’ part of the agreement signed between the Taleban and Qatar? The Taleban say no. On 23 June, they denied having broken or indeed signed any agreement with the US. Qatar office spokesman, Naim Wardak, said documents had been exchanged between the Islamic Emirate and the Qatari government regarding ‘the conditions of the office’ and that the raising of the flag and use of the name ‘Islamic Emirate’ had been done ‘with the agreement of the Qatari government.’
The Qatar government (in the statement cited earlier which was issued after the opening) said the agreed title had been the Taleban (movement’s) office, not the IEA. AAN failed to get any official response from the Qatari government over these issues.
Secretary Kerry did not hold anyone specific accountable, but said: ‘Regrettably, the agreement was not adhered to in the early hours [of the opening]’. The New York Times said Afghan and US officials had blamed the Taleban for breaking the agreement.
Trying to make sense of what happened, we have come up with five possible scenarios:
1. The US government had left everything vague
According to this scenario, the US really did not care much about the details of the opening. Either, they had simply forgotten to check on the details such as flag, name or signboard or they did not think through the consequences. They put the Qataris in charge of arranging the office opening who acted as the Taleban wanted them to, while the Americans communicated the arrangements to Kabul in a different way.
2. The US backtracked after Kabul’s objection
According to this scenario, everything, including the way of opening the office, the flag and its name, had been fully agreed upon between the Taleban and Qatar on behalf of the US. The opening of the office took place in the way it had been agreed. But the Americans backed off under pressure from Kabul and due to the massive publicity the Taleban received. Since the peace process is at least presented as Afghan-led, the Afghan government was acting as per its right to raise its voice against the event. The US could not contradict itself anymore and was forced to change course. The US’s objection came the day following the opening and only after President Karzai had sent a letter of protest to his American counterpart.
Initially, it seemed to us that the Americans had changed their tune on the opening, as if the outcry at the flag had been a terrible surprise – this would seem to back up scenario 1 or 2. However, going back through the welcoming statements reported on the day of the opening, it seems rather that the press reporting had just been sloppy. Most of the welcoming statements had been made before the opening or concurrently with it. In the US press briefing system, statements are rarely issued spontaneously by the president or other senior officials in response to events. They are drafted and pre-cleared days in advance of the event to which they are keyed. As one official said to AAN, ‘When the event goes very differently than planned, there is sometimes a mismatch between pre-cleared statement and event.’
An administration official also said to AAN that:
When we saw what had happened at the office opening, we immediately expressed our disappointment to the Qataris, who were in charge of the rules governing the office. We also reached out to the Afghan government, who we understood would be legitimately upset at the way the opening was conducted, and worked quickly to try to correct the situation.
If this explanation is accepted, then scenarios 3 or 4 become more likely.
3. The Qataris had created confusion by agreeing different things with different parties
According to this scenario, the Qataris failed to communicate the same message to all sides, possibly because they were so eager to further promote the country’s image as a regional peace-broker by publically hosting the Taleban, as well as the political bureau of Hamas, and adding Afghan mediation to their intra-Palestinian portfolio.
The presence and lack of objections from the Qatari officials during the opening ceremony would seem to reinforce the notion that they had made no agreement with the Taleban over the status of the office.
4. There was an agreement. The Taleban broke it and the Qataris let them
However, it may be that there had been an agreement and the Qataris had not understood just how important the status of the office was. It may just have been that, to a Gulf Arab, Islamic emirates are the normal way of referring to states and, anyway, who could object to a flag bearing the kalima, the Muslim testimony of faith?
The US did not want to blame the Qataris publically, believing they had made an honest mistake, hence the number of passive tenses used in referring to agreements (they were made, they were broken etc).
5. Washington and Kabul test the Taleban – or worse?
It was a deliberate conspiracy to stir controversy over the Taleban’s venerated symbols. Making the Taleban raise their flag and announce their name and then forcing them to bring it down on US orders was a difficult test for the movement. The goal could be to create rifts within the Taleban or to humiliate them.
There is no evidence for this, but the nature of the debacle, the gaps of information and the way the US apparently changed its tune have all created an environment where conspiracies can flourish. This notion is discussed in some pro-Taleban websites and by the group’s sympathisers on the social media. (Read one article here)
Whatever the cause of the fiasco, and what actually happened, may become clearer (or not) as time passes – one result is that the prospect of holding meaningful negotiations has become significantly slimmer. It has also shown how difficult such events are to choreograph and keep a handle on, especially when there is no honest, astute broker. The Qataris probably are honest brokers, but lack diplomatic experience in negotiating between such tricky protagonists. It also shows how useful a UN appointed envoy would have been; he could have been able to reassure, cajole and pass messages between the various different parties out of the glare of publicity.
Only one party may actually be pleased with how everything eventually panned out and that is the Afghan government. The US wanted to present Afghans as the owners of this peace process, but the government had previously been working hard to derail the Qatar initiative. In a second dispatch about the fall out from Qatar, we will look at the government’s approach to this peace process and examine if it has been putting roadblocks on the path of what could be – or could have been – an authentic reconciliation initiative.
(1) This an excerpt from a press release issued by the White House’s Office of the Press Secretary on June 18, 2013 at 1610 UK time concerning remarks made by President Obama after a meeting with the French president:
Today, we spent some time discussing the transition in Afghanistan where there have been some important developments. Afghan forces are now in the lead in Afghanistan, fulfilling the milestone that we agreed to at the NATO summit in Chicago.
We also discussed Qatar's announcement that an office is opening in Doha for the purposes of negotiations between Afghans, so that we have a parallel political track that matches up with the transition that's taking place militarily in Afghanistan and the elections that will be coming up next year. Both President Hollande and I agree that an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process is the best way to end the violence and to ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region. And so this is an important first step towards reconciliation. Although it's a very early step — we anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road — but the fact that the parties have an opportunity to talk and discuss Afghanistan's future I think is very important.
The one thing that we do believe is that any insurgent group, including the Taliban, is going to need to accept an Afghan constitution that renounces ties with al Qaeda, ends violence and is committed to the protection of women and minorities in the country.
And over the last several months, I've discussed this issue frequently with President Karzai and also the Emir of Qatar. So I want to publicly commend President Karzai for taking this courageous step, and his determination to end the conflict and build a future of security and peace and prosperity for the Afghan people. And I know that President Hollande shares my view on this.
We're going to continue to support these efforts in partnership with the Afghan government. I want to repeat we don't anticipate this process will be easy or quick, but we must pursue in parallel with our military approach. And we, in the meantime, remain fully committed to our military efforts to defeat al Qaeda and to support the Afghan National Security Forces.