The Taleban have announced that they are suspending talks with the Americans, only six weeks after the opening of their political office in Qatar. In a statement, they described the US approach as ‘shaky, erratic and vague’ and accused the Americans of breaching a memorandum of understanding which had been previously arrived at. This decision does not appear driven by the killing of 16 civilians in Panjwai by a US soldier earlier in the week, but has to do with how the talks were going – particularly the non-release of Taleban prisoners from Guantanamo and Washington’s insistence that the Taleban deal with President Karzai – and with internal Taleban politics. Meanwhile, President Karzai, in the wake of the Panjwai killings, has demanded a faster track transition of security from ISAF to Afghan hands. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark reports.
There has been a worrying lack of urgency from the Americans about the opportunity for talks provided by the Taleban’s opening on 3 January of a political office in Qatar. The move, which necessarily had been approved by Washington, was proof of some political courage by both sides, something tangible emerging from their months’ long dance of comments which had appeared aimed at somehow encouraging the other or mitigating their fears (for detail, see AAN blog). However, the timing of the Qatar office opening was always going to be tricky. Early January did not give much time to come up with something more solid before the Taleban had to either decide to keep talking or start rousing the rank and file to go back into battle after their winter rest.
The Taleban have now suspended the political process unilaterally. The statement, unusually for the Taleban holds back on the rhetoric and insults and instead concentrates quite soberly on making political points. They said the US envoy in his latest meeting presented new conditions which contradicted an already agreed memorandum of understanding. The Americans, were they said, ‘wasting time’. (The full text of the Taleban statement can be seen at the end of this piece).
The statement says the ‘diplomatic office in Qatar was opened with the purpose of ‘reaching an understanding with the international community’ and of ‘addressing some specific issues with the American invaders.’ It said the Taleban wanted to be able to have face-to-face dialogue in ‘complete freedom’ and ‘away from danger’ and to silence critics who said the Taleban had no address (where they could be spoken to) or was just a ‘warring faction’ which had no political or administrative capacities and wanted to harm other nations. To this end, the statement said, they ‘started holding preliminary talks with the occupying enemy.’
The Taleban appear to have had two problems with the US. Firstly, the Taleban – according to their statement – believed the Americans had agreed to take practical steps to release five prisoners from Guantanamo (for biographies of the five and analysis, see here and here), but instead have dragged their feet.
Secondly, according to the Taleban, the US wanted to bring President Karzai into the discussions. They said Washington ‘initiated baseless propaganda’ portraying Taleban envoys as having ‘commenced multilateral negotiations’, while, again in the words of the Taleban, ‘Hamed Karzai, who can not even make a single political decision without the prior consent of the Americans, falsely proclaimed that the Kabul administration and the Americans have jointly started peace talks with [the] Taleban.’
The Qatar process was certainly initiated as a bilateral US-Taleban track. This caused upset to President Karzai when he found out. He withdrew his ambassador from Doha, but was then persudaded to rhetorically come on side, but has clearly remained unhappy, for example trying to establish a different Saudi track. Meanwhile, the Americans have been publicly insisting that any peace talks had to be Afghan-led (see Secretary of State Clinton on 11 January: ‘I have made it clear to President Karzai that we will work with him, under his leadership’ here, or the White House spokesman on 17 February here. For AAN analysis, see here and here. It is perfectly proper in many people’s eyes for the Afghan president to be on board, if not in control of events, but the Taleban appear to think the Americans had breached an agreement for bilateral talks. They explained their position:
‘… the Afghan issue has two main dimensions; one is internal and the other external… Until and unless the external dimension is settled which rests entirely in the hands of the foreigners, discussing the internal dimension is meaningless and is nothing more than a waste of time. Therefore the Islamic Emirate considers talking with the Kabul administration as pointless.’
As always in such negotations, each player has different constitutencies to satisfy and the Taleban leadership while moving ahead on talking to the ‘invaders’, has also had to keep their base happy, the young men who actually fight and are prepared to die in this war. The base appears to be more radical and less naturally inclined to take a political route to end the conflict than the leadership. Talking while fighting is more difficult for an insurgent group than a government; soldiers in an army can be ordered to fight while the politicians discuss, insurgents need to be motivated and inspired.
That base must have been upset by three incidents this year, the video of marines pissing on corpses of Taleban, the burning of copies of the Qur’an at Bagram Airbase and the recent killing of 16 civilians by an American soldier in Panjway on 11 March. Yet the leadership chose to ignore all three as ‘excuses’ to break off contact. When commenting on the first and partially on the second incident, the Taleban spokesman said they would not derail the talks. Private comments by senior Taleban suggested that at least some in the movement suspected spoilers in the US army of being behind the first two events in an attempt to provoke a reaction from the Taleban to sabotage the ‘peace process’. At least some of the new statement looks aimed at persuading the base that the leadership has not sold out. For example, one aim, it says, of speaking to the ‘international community was:
‘…to ascertain the invaders in face to face dialogue that we are not going to abandon the struggle for our freedom and will not pardon you until the withdrawal of your last soldier and until you let the Afghans establish an Islamic government for themselves’.
Some idea of the differing expectations on timetables has been clear in the last few weeks. The Taleban appeared to be expecting something tangible on the prisoner front, which would have persuaded them that the Americans were serious and given them some positive results to sell to their base and keep them on board. Instead, they have found the American approach ‘shaky, erratic and vague’, an attempt to take advantage of the talks to ‘postpone core issues’ and achieve ‘other malicious objectives’. At the same time, diplomats in Kabul and American journalists have been saying privately how difficult talking to the Taleban would be for Obama in an election year and how the Taleban, as one journalist put it, ‘must see that there will be no movement until after the elections in November.’
Yet with the Republicans busy discussing contraception, moving ahead more forthrightly on talks appeared a possible sell to the American public. It would have needed some political courage and a determined approach, though. The sell appeared especially possible, given how many Americans are tired of the fighting, are mystified as to the point of the war and see Obama being outflanked by some on the right, including the Republican presidential contender, Newt Gingrich, who has called the mission ‘undoable’ and said the troops should be brought home (see here and here).
The Taleban statement leaves the door open; this is a suspension, not an end to talks. However, the move appears based on real problems with the Americans’ negotiating position, rather than it being merely a tactical disengagement. The US has downplayed the statement. However, if the Americans are serious about getting a negotiated end to the war, it looks like the ball is now firmly in the their court.*
The Taleban leadership were and may still be serious about talks – but instead of discussing how to end the war, they will now be persuading the rank and file to go out again this year and fight. That another round of fighting and killing is now on the agenda is a difficult prospect to face.
Meanwhile, President Karzai, fresh from extracting an agreement from the US on their handing over of security prisoners at Bagram, is asserting fresh demands – that, following the killing of the 16 civilians in Panjway, international forces must pull out of rural areas and into large bases and hand over security responsibility to Afghans by the end of next year – earlier than the 2014 deadline (for reporting see here). President Karzai, who was never keen on the Qatar office or the idea of Taleban/US talks, appears to have suddenly become much stronger and more assertive in this three-way relationship.
* This was The Guardian’s (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/15/nato-afghanistan-policy-karzai-taliban?newsfeed=true) take on the US reaction:
The US embassy in Kabul said Washington remains committed to supporting an Afghan peace process, and its position has been consistent. ‘For a Taliban political office to open the Afghan Taliban must make clear statements distancing itself from international terrorism and in support of a political process among all Afghans to end the conflict in Afghanistan,’ said [Gavin] Sundwall [US embassy spokesman]. The US soldier blamed for the shooting was flown to Kuwait on Wednesday. This may have been an attempt to defuse tension but the Obama adminstration said it was normal practice in such cases. Victoria Nuland, a state department spokeswoman speaking at the daily briefing in Washington, said US policy was to facilitate talks between the Taliban and Karzai. If the Taliban want an office opened in Qatar and a release of prisoners, they would not achieve that through walking away from the negotiating table, she said, adding: ‘It takes two to tango.’
This text was emailed to media outlets, including AAN:
Thursday, 21 Rabi’ul Akhir 1433 / Thursday, 15 March 2012 at 11:12
Declaration of the Islamic Emirate about the suspension of dialogue with Americans, office in Qatar and its political activity
The Islamic Emirate decided on officially inaugurating its diplomatic office in Qatar a short while ago on 8th Zafar-ul-Muzaffar 1433 which corresponds with 3rd January 2012 for the purposes of reaching an understanding with the international community and for addressing some specific issues with the American invaders after arriving at an agreement with the government of Qatar.
The aim behind the induction of a diplomatic office was so that the Islamic Emirate can establish contact with the international community under complete freedom and away from any danger and to ascertain the invaders in face to face dialogue that we are not going to abandon the struggle for our freedom and will not pardon you until the withdrawal of your last soldier and until you let the Afghans establish an Islamic government for themselves. Similarly we wanted to quash the excuses put forward by the enemy who relieved themselves by repeatedly saying that the Mujahideen have no address with which contact can be made. Furthermore we wished to clarify to all the parties that in the future, we are prepared for such interaction with everyone as is done between any two sovereign nations in which every side gives consideration to its own established laws. We also wanted to erase the dull picture of Islamic Emirate painted and presented to the world by our enemies who dismissed us as a warring faction which has no political, administrative and social capabilities or that it wished to harm other nations all the while the Islamic Emirate has transparent policies, complete competence and long term plans regarding all these issues.
In this connection, the political envoys of the Islamic Emirate agreed upon the inauguration of a diplomatic office, the arrangement about which was already made with the government of Qatar and started holding preliminary talks with the occupying enemy over the exchange of prisoners. The Americans initially agreed upon taking practical steps regarding the exchange of prisoners and to not oppose our political office but with the passage of time, they turned their backs on their promises and started initiating baseless propaganda portraying the envoys of the Islamic Emirate as having commenced multilateral negotiations for solving the Afghan dilemma.
At the same time Hamid Karzai, who can not even make a single political decision without the prior consent of the Americans, falsely proclaimed that the Kabul administration and the Americans have jointly started peace talks with Taliban; whereas the Islamic Emirate has not discussed any other issue apart from the two aforementioned (i.e. the induction of an office and the exchange of prisoners) and neither have we accepted any other condition with any other side nor have we conducted any talks with Karzai administration.
A memorandum of understanding which was agreed upon earlier was not yet fulfilled when an American representative presented a list of conditions in his latest meeting with the Islamic Emirate which were not only unacceptable but also in contradiction with the earlier agreed upon points. So it was due to their alternating and ever changing position that the Islamic Emirate was compelled to suspend all dialogue with the Americans. We must categorically state that the real source of obstacle in talks was the shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans therefore all the responsibility for the halt also falls on their shoulders.
To elucidate the standpoint of the Islamic Emirate to our own Muslim people, to the transgressors and to the entire world, the inauguration of political office in Qatar was not but for the sake of reaching an understanding with the outside world and particularly for the exchange of prisoners with the Americans in the initial stages. But it seems that the invading Americans and their stooge regime took advantage of these measures of Islamic Emirate and sought to achieve other malicious objectives and therefore are postponing the core issues and are wasting time.
So the Islamic Emirate has decided to suspend all talks with Americans taking place in Qatar from today onwards until the Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned and until they show willingness in carrying out their promises instead of wasting time.
Similarly the Afghan issue has two main dimensions; one is internal and the other external. The external dimension is associated with Americans and the internal dimension is connected with the Afghans themselves. Until and unless the external dimension is settled which rests entirely in the hands of the foreigners, discussing the internal dimension is meaningless and is nothing more than a waste of time. Therefore the Islamic Emirate considers talking with the Kabul administration as pointless.
At the same time, the Islamic Emirate is fully prepared, has enduring patience and long-term Jihadi strategies against the malicious plots of the enemy and enjoys the ceaseless support of its believing nation. The Islamic Emirate correlates the presence of the alien forces in Afghanistan with instability of the entire region and will not tolerate it in the present shape nor temporary and neither in the shape of permanent bases.
The Islamic Emirate once again calls on the entire world and particularly the regional countries to support and back the Islamic Emirate in expelling of the invaders in order to achieve peace and stability in the whole region.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020