When little is clear, all clues seem relevant. And so it can happen that a handful of fairly vague sentences by the President are taken as proof of a significant new step towards negotiations in Afghanistan. A closer look at these claims of emerging “three-way talks” shows that this reading is rather premature, as is also reflected in the immediate Taleban denial. But there is, if nothing else, at least an acknowledgement that there may be a process and – for the moment – those involved seem careful not to decisively spoil it. This may not last, it may go nowhere, but it does provide a chance.
Karzai’s interview with the Wall Street Journal on 15 February 2012 led to some excitement in the international media. The President’s comments were read as an admission, or even announcement, of the start of a three-way negotiation between the Taleban, the US and the Afghan government. Major media outlets described it as “an important breakthrough in efforts to end the 10-year war” (WSJ); “a move that could bolster US-led efforts to convene fully fledged peace talks within months” (Reuters); and “a potentially significant development suggesting that the Taliban were dropping longstanding objections to face-to-face discussions with the Afghan government” (NYT).
The Taleban were swift to deny this reading of events: “Hamid Karzai recently asserted in an interview with the ‘The Wall Street Journal’ that the US and Kabul administration have started secret talks with the Taliban which have also proven very effective. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan strongly rejects Karzai’s claims and adds that the representatives of Islamic Emirate have not talked with the puppet administration anywhere and have not even yet decided if they want to hold talks with the administration of Kabul.”
Moreover, during his visit to Islamabad Karzai is said to have clashed with his Pakistani counterparts, when he aggressively demanded that they produce the Taleban leadership during the visit so that he could negotiate with them. That does not sound like a man confident that talks are underway and that his seat at the table is secure.
So what is going on? First, about the so-called “three-way talks”. When reading the WSJ interview it turns out that Karzai actually says very little about them. He mainly describes how his government is no longer left out of whatever process of negotiations may be emerging. In his version of events the Afghan government was always kept in the picture by the US and has now even retaken the initiative – by convincing the US to implement and pass on its point of view (without specifying what that entailed). Karzai, in fact, spends much more time during the interview discussing his negotiations with the US, than that he talks about the possible negotiations with the Taleban.*
What he does say about the “three-way talks” is vague and seems to point towards something quite preliminary:
“There have been contacts between the US government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together, including the Taliban, in a third location. A third location. I can go that far.”
Whoever happened to have been in the same room and whatever they may have discussed, it does not seem to have been of great importance (yet). This is also reflected in the reaction of (as usual, unnamed) US officials, quoted by the WSJ. They confirmed that there had been a session in the past month to prepare the ground for further contacts, but cautioned against reading too much into what came out of it. And, as mentioned before, the Taleban have made it clear that as far as they are concerned they have not started formally talking to the Afghan government.**
So is the Karzai government talking to the Taleban or not? The President, when asked during the WSJ interview, claimed that whatever problems there had been (linked to unspecified differences of opinion with the US), they had nothing to do with a Taleban refusal to talk to the Afghan government:
“That was never an issue anyway. We were talking to the Taliban, we were talking to the senior-most of them. Contacts at different levels, official, personal, all sorts. We keep hearing in the press from time to time that the Taliban don’t want to talk to us, but that’s someone making a statement.”
That’s stretching it. While it is true that over the years there have been all kinds of contacts, ranging from the informal and personal between old friends, to attempts to make deals or hedge bets, to explicit overtures by emissaries feeling the water, it is also true that the Taleban in their public statements have consistently denied and been dismissive of formal talks with the Afghan government. This may change, but it hasn’t changed yet.
So what do we have? We have the Afghan President claiming to be part of the developing talks between the US and the Taleban. We have the Taleban saying that, as far as they’re concerned, there is no need to have the Afghan government at the table. And we have the US government still trying to present this as an Afghan-led process.*** The statements by the different parties clearly do not add up and if you try to connect the dots, you do not end up with a coherent picture. That should be no surprise. Most comments are after all messages to disparate audiences and attempts to shape the narrative, rather than objective descriptions of what is going on.
But what is emerging from the contradictions and confusions are the beginnings of a possible process – not as clearly defined as suggested in media reporting or public statements, but also more than just illusory. It is loosely crafted around the idea of a Taleban office in Qatar, although the office itself will probably not prove that important. The initial confidence building measures (prisoner release, renouncing international terrorism) are being mainly negotiated between the Taleban and the US. The Afghan government is still seeking to position itself: vis-à-vis the US who seems to be holding the cards as far as the on-going negotiations are concerned; and vis-à-vis Pakistan whom Karzai believes holds the keys to the insurgency’s leadership. Karzai for the moment seems on board with the Qatar process, but he will probably continue to explore alternative routes (such as the parallel Saudi initiative, which so far was not met with much Saudi enthusiasm, or the attempts to get Pakistan to arrange a meeting with the Quetta shura).
The process of sorting out who should talk to whom and about what, and who else gets to sit at the table, and who should be consulted, and which possible parallel attempts are relevant, is by nature messy and fluid – and will probably remain so. Different tracks and rumours of tracks will move in and out of the spotlight. For the moment the Qatar track has moved centre stage, not in the least by the public acknowledgement of the process by all parties, including the Taleban.**** With everybody now talking to everybody, at least at some level, it is no longer enough to be just talking (and bragging about it); you need to be part of the leading process. And it seems that that is going to be the struggle in the months ahead: who gets to shape the process and who gets to sit at the table.
And although all sides are involved in a fair amount of posturing and pontificating, there also seems to be a certain cautiousness not to decisively spoil the process, which is unusual. This may be inspired by a growing realisation that all sides stand to lose from a major unravelling of the situation (if a post-intervention government collapses, the Taleban will probably fragment together with the rest of the country, rather than take over power). Such a moment of clarity may not last, it may lead nowhere, but it does provide a chance.
* The interview starts with the question whether the President felt he was being left out of the peace talks and Karzai responds by describing his version of the events surrounding the Qatar process: For a year there had been “forms of contact” between the Taliban and the US government with the understanding that “the Taleban and the Afghan government would at a certain time also be talking”. There was then a difference of opinion over how the issue of the Qatar office was handled, after which:
“the US government, having noticed our view on that, began to negotiate with us … We told Mr Grossman our views and conditions. Those were taken and put forward to the government of Qatar and the Taliban … We have now reached an agreement. That means what we want has been put into action by the US government, and what we want has been seen as being right.”
The point Karzai implicitly makes is that his government needs to negotiate on several fronts at the same time and that, at this stage, the main negotiations have been with the US.
** The Taleban’s position on (not) talking to the Afghan government seems to be based on practical, rather than principled grounds: they want to talk to the real power, the US, rather than what they see as its proxies, as illustrated in a recent email interview with CNN. If you filter out what appears to be a confusing translation, Zabihullah Mujahed says something like this:
“This is not about Afghans or Americans. This is not about – as some people say in an attempt to oppose us – the Taleban only wanting to talk to the Americans and not to their own Afghans. This is about talking to the party that has the power. Everyone knows that the real power in Afghanistan is America and that Karzai and his administration are only America’s tool.” And: “In regards to Saudi Arabia, no one has put forward such a request to us and even if such a thing was requested, our answer will be that the government of Karzai is not independent and meeting with it will not benefit in any way in solving the problem.”
This position, incidentally, mirrors Karzai’s insistence, now abandoned, after Rabbani’s death that negotiations needed to be with the one using the Taleban as a tool, ie Pakistan, not with the Taleban.
*** See yesterday’s White House reaction to the Karzai interview: “We are obviously a part of this process that is Afghan-led. We keep the Afghan government abreast of any conversations that we have”.
Defence Secretary Panetta, on the other hand, stressed the Afghan government’s participation rather than its supposed lead, but still talked up the importance of Karzai’s comments: “What President Karzai’s statement confirmed is that Afghanistan is now very much involved in the process of reconciliation. That’s extremely helpful and important to determining whether or not we are ultimately going to be able to succeed with reconciliation.”
**** The recent and repeated acknowledgement by the Taleban of their talks with the Americans is a relatively new phenomenon. See for the latest instance the email interview with CNN on 15 February 2012:
“A representative of Islamic Emirate has held meetings with American delegates in Qatar regarding confidence building measures. As for when we will send or not send delegations to Qatar, then it all depends on when we reach the negotiation stage. Up until now, this has not officially occurred … in order to reach an understanding with America, Qatar was chosen as an intermediary nation by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. … The current talks or future negotiations all take place with the permission and guidance of the Amir.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020