War & Peace

The Opening of the Taleban Office in Qatar: A propaganda coup and an angry government


The long awaited Taleban office in Qatar has opened on 18 June 2013 with a press conference in which two spokesmen presented their movement as a government in waiting. With the old Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flag behind them, Sohail Shaheen, in English and Mullah Naeem, in Pashto managed to portray an insurgency, whose main victims, after all, are Afghan civilians, as a ‘jihad to put an end to the occupation, and form an independent Islamic system… utilis[ing] every lawful means.’ It was a propaganda coup. The US, meanwhile, has been briefing optimistically, calling it an Afghan-led process and, in the words of President Obama, an ‘important first step toward reconciliation’. There was an ominous silence from the Afghan government, followed, this morning, by the announcement that President Karzai had suspended talks with the Americans over the post-2014 Bilateral Security and Defence Agreement. AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark reports (with input from Martine van Bijlert and Gran Hewad).

It was with a sort of queasy nostalgia that I watched the live press conference announcing the opening of the Taleban political office on al-Jazeera. I attended many such events when the Taleban were in power in Kabul pre-2001 and it looked very much the same. How nicely the Taleban had managed to present themselves – beards neatly trimmed (a crime in the old days), the Islamic Emirate flag draped in the background and flowers round the podium (fresh rather than Taleban-era plastic). The introduction by the deputy foreign minister of Qatar only enhanced the show of respectability. As to what they said, it did not look like they had conceded much.

The two spokesmen made short statements, in Pashto and then, the same text, in English. According to two un-named American ‘senior administration officials’ giving a background briefing for journalists at the White House before the office was opened, the Taleban were required to say two things:

So later today in Doha, the Taleban will release a statement that says two things: First, that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries; and second, that they support an Afghan peace process. These are two statements which we’ve long called for and together, they fulfil the requirements for the Taliban to open an office, a political office, in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government.

The Taleban spokesmen did duly say that the ‘Islamic Emirate’, ‘never wants to pose harms to other countries from its soil, nor will it allow anyone to cause a threat to the security of countries from the soil of Afghanistan’, but he also said:

…at world level, it considers the struggles and efforts by the miserable and oppressed nations for achievement of their legitimate rights and independence as their due rights, because people have the right to liberate their countries from colonialism and obtain their rights.

The spokesman failed to say they supported an ‘Afghan peace process’.

Instead, they said the office would help them have talks with ‘countries of the world’, find a peaceful solution to the ‘occupation… and the establishment of an Islamic system and true security,’ and that it would allow them to hold meetings with Afghans, make contact with the UN and NGOS and put statements into the media. The spokesmen did not mention the Afghan government by name, although later on the BBC Pashto Service, Mullah Naeem did call it a ‘puppet government’. They referred to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the Taleban’s name for their regime when in power – seven times in a matter of minutes, and managed to present themselves as a legitimate resistance force, fighting an occupation – how well that goes down in the Arab world and elsewhere. Even when stuck in front of a camera in a live interview, the al-Jazeera journalist was so weak and ill-prepared that Sohail Shaheen managed to evade accounting for how the Taleban can be fighting, using ‘lawful means’, and still end up killing so many Afghan civilians – only a week after the attack on the Supreme Court in Kabul in a residential area had led to dozens of civilians being killed and injured.

The opening of the office was a propaganda coup for the Taleban – whatever the group in Qatar actually represents in terms of the wider insurgency (more of which later). Already, celebratory videos from the office can be found on the internet showing the group in Qatar raising their flag (see for instance here). For them, in particular, yesterday was a triumph. They have gone from inhabiting a largely inactive office with no real mandate, to being the brief centre of world media attention. They are now guaranteed a steady stream of journalists and diplomatic visitors. And although the idea for the office may have originated with them, they did not need to lobby or work to make this happen. That seems to have been done for them mainly by the US.

The US has tried to portray the opening as the fruits of an indigenous process, as being, in the words of the American senior administration officials ‘Afghan-led’. And this is what one of the officials said in response to a journalist asking about President Karzai’s demand that negotiations be moved to Afghanistan as soon as possible:

It … very much reflects this whole process, which began with a series of loya jirgas that Karzai held in 2010 and 2011. It includes the Karzai visit here to Washington in January [2013]. And this is an Afghan initiative and it’s a perfect representation of what we mean by Afghan-led, Afghan-owned. So if the Afghan delegation makes this a priority in their engagements with the Taliban, then that’s completely in keeping with Afghan ownership.

We have all come to be wary of the term, ‘Afghan-led’ as, on the battlefield it has often been used to describe operations which are entirely foreign. In this case, the scepticism was fully justified. This has not been an Afghan initiative, at least not an Afghan government initiative, as has been clear from President Karzai’s repeated attempts to veto the office or find an alternative in Saudi Arabic or Turkey and, when this became impossible, to lay down conditions to try to force the Taleban to deal with him. The Taleban, however, do not consider him a negotiating partner – and their disdain for him and his government was clear even as the office opened: he and his government were not worth a mention. The opening of this office was rather the result of a lot of behind the scenes mediation. The US ‘senior administration official’ mentioned the British, Germans, Norwegians and the Qataris as having ‘contributed significantly’ since 2011, and Pakistan as having ‘in recent months been particularly helpful’, but this has clearly been an American-led drive to start talks.(1)

Indeed, it looks like they have been chivvying, harassing and encouraging the Afghan government to go along with the opening and then attempted to spin the ‘peace process’ as Afghan. It had all looked to be falling into place. In terms of choreography, the office opening followed on from the ceremonial handing over of security responsibilities of the fifth and final tranche of the country from ISAF to Afghan National Security Forces earlier in the day. But the silence from the Afghan government side about the political office was not auspicious. And then came the announcement today that the National Security Council had decided to suspend talks with the US on the post-2014 Bilateral Security and Defence Agreement, because of what it called the Americans’ ‘inconsistent statements and actions in regard to the peace process’. The president had clearly felt tricked and ambushed by the way the office was opened.

The new US AfgPak envoy, James Dobbins, a former Assistant Secretary of State and the lead US negotiator on the Bonn Agreement in 2001, (read his biography here) was reportedly due to meet representatives of the Taleban political office on Friday 21 June 2013, followed by a delegation from the High Peace Council a few days later. It is however no longer clear that the High Peace Council will be visiting; the HPC, so far, has said that they will not talk in Qatar, as long as the peace process is not fully Afghan. The President is reportedly incensed. The Americans must be scrambling to try to limit the damage.

So where does this leave it all?

There are, first, serious questions as to who is being represented in Qatar and what relationship the men there have with the leaders of the insurgency, particularly the Pakistan-aligned Military Commission and the network around Haqqani (for details of the structure of the insurgency, see AAN analysis here), and what they might be able to deliver. The un-named officials in the White House confidently said they believed the officials in Qatar are the ‘authorized, fully authorized representatives of the movement, and authorized by Mullah Omar himself,’ adding, ‘they declare that about themselves, and that’s our understanding based on all the reporting.’ As to the ‘Haqqani network’, the officials, in response to a journalist’s repeated questioning, said:

So we considered the Haqqani Network an especially dangerous element of the overall Taliban movement. So the Haqqanis themselves declare themselves part of the overall movement, and we have all evidence that supports that claim. Now, they’re especially dangerous because they tend to strike at the heart of the capital, in Kabul. And they’re an especially capable element of the Taliban insurgency, so we consider them a fully subordinate part of the overall insurgency.

Q But, again, are they taking part in negotiations or are they on the outside?

So when the Taliban movement opens the office and is represented by its political commission [sic], that political commission represents, as we understand it, the Haqqani element as well. We don’t know the exact makeup of the Taliban delegation, but we believe that it broadly represents, as authorized by Mullah Omar, the entire movement to include the Haqqanis.

That talking and fighting would continue on both sides was to be expected. It was also emphasised by both sides yesterday. As Shaheen, the English speaking spokesperson, said in a televised Al Jazeera interview: ‘They are attacking us and we are the attacking them, the attacking will continue parallel with the peaceful talks for peace.’ The killing of four US soldiers in a rocket attack on Bagram airbase on the same day that the office opened, which may or may not have been a coincidence, confirmed that the office by itself will not change the nature of the war. The insurgency has been particularly nasty this year, with levels of violence already surpassing 2012 and approaching – although still below – the peak year of 2011 and no one should expect the violence to subsume. Violence may even accelerate, possibly by those in the insurgency who do not like the peace track, if it takes off. The White House, however, spoke of their hopes for the war to die down – while disingenuously re-framing it as having been against al Qaida all along:

…obviously, we hope these talks will lead to a diminution in violence in Afghanistan. We don’t expect that to happen immediately, perhaps not even quickly, but we certainly hope that they do contribute to that. The levels and nature of our presence are obviously going to be influenced, on the one hand, by levels of violence in Afghanistan, and on the other hand, by the presence or absence of international terrorists in or around Afghanistan. To the extent the talks contribute to diminishing violence and eliminating international terrorists in and around Afghanistan, that will have an impact on decisions regarding our future presence.

The second official then started speaking optimistically about how well transition and even the elections could go if a reduction in violence was achieved by 2014.

Seeing how credible the political office is may be judged by what, if any, effect it has on the insurgency, in particular attacks on civilians – that is, if the whole artifice of the ‘Afghan-led’ peace process manages to survive and turn into something more durable and meaningful. The hope has to be that sometimes even fake processes get a life of their own.

There appears to be a willingness to talk, at least between the Taleban and the US, even though their reasons, timelines and agendas are quite different. It will also be useful for the Taleban to have a channel to make their wishes, conditions, world views known; it will force a certain amount of clarity and provide some opportunity for accountability – following Supreme Court attack-style atrocities, for example – although it will need to cut through an awful lot of propaganda. It seems unlikely that any real talks will be taking place in an office which will see a coming and going of people who want their few minutes with the Taleban representation. But it will probably function as a regularized channel to pass on messages.

At the moment, one would have to conclude that the opening of this office has made the Taleban look strong, the Americans desperate and President Karzai angry. The Palace will be issuing a statement imminently. We will then have a better idea of the extent of the damage.

(1) The second official appeared to correct the first by saying, ‘the core players here are the government of Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan, and the US’

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Thematic Category: War & Peace