War & Peace

The Qatar Office Conundrum: Karzai’s quest for control over Taleban talks


During President Karzai’s recent visit to Qatar, discussions about a possible Taleban office were high on the agenda, and the visit had been charged with expectations in advance. Surprisingly, not much has been officially publicised about its outcome after the president returned home. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig tries to make sense of the trip and thinks that while it was just an episode, its is part of a wider strategy, to neutralise third parties’ potential communication channels with the Taleban. Since the beginning of the year, Kabul has made some progress on this but also suffered some setbacks. The major setback was that Pakistan did not become more cooperative – the bilateral relations have hit rock bottom, again, and the Afghan-Pakistani road map to peace shelved.

 

Two days passed before any statement from Kabul was given about President Hamed Karzai’s visit to Qatar last weekend. This was surprising since the visit had been charged with expectation beforehand – regarding an agreement about opening a Taleban office in the Emirate’s capital Doha and even speculations that Karzai might meet Taleban representatives who are based there.(1)

The first statement did not even come from the presidential office but from a member, and not a major one, of the High Peace Council (HPC). Mawlawi Shafiullah Nuristani, quoted by ToloNews, claimed that ‘one of the details’ of an agreement reached in Doha was ‘that the opposition [i.e., the Taleban] should use this office only for the peace talks and not any other political purpose. Another part of the agreement is that those Taliban members who are ready for the peace talks should be granted immunity, and any suspension should be removed.’ Nuristani added that it was further agreed that the Taliban office will be opened by the HPC because ‘opening the office was not seen as appropriate for the president’.

The good mawlawi appears to have taken Karzai’s agenda for a done deal. So far, no one else has mentioned that an agreement was reached. The foreign ministry spokesman, commenting after Nuristani, remained extremely cautious when quoted in the same Tolo report, just saying that ‘officials of [the] Qatari government – including the emir of Qatar – support the efforts of the Afghan government. They stated their government’s support for this [peace] process.’ The Karzai office did not even respond to a Tolo request to comment, as reported in the same ToloNews article. Also, no official statements seem to be coming from the Qatari government.(2) Does this mean that things did not go well for the Afghan government in Doha?

Meanwhile, President Karzai has commented in an interview with al-Jazeera. He said that his talks with Qatar’s head of state Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani centred on how Qatar can ‘facilitate the peace process’, and that a Taliban office in Qatar could pave the way for ‘direct contacts’ and push forward the peace process in Afghanistan (quoted here).

Karzai went to Qatar with a clear agenda. As the Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman made clear before the trip (echoed by Nuristani’s statement), he wanted to obtain from the Emir an agreement that the planned Taleban office in Doha should have ‘one objective [only] . . . to facilitate direct talks’ with the Kabul government [emphasis added]. Particularly, Karzai wanted a written agreement that the office would not be used for fundraising activities or politicking and would not assume the status of an unofficial embassy by flying the Taleban flag. Kabul wants to avoid any sign that the Taleban were an equal party in the conflict, thereby undermining the Afghan government’s legitimacy as the only representative of the Afghan people. For the same reason, Kabul insists that the Taleban recognise the current constitution if they want to join talks.(3) Defending his government’s sovereignty to act is one of Karzai’s current policy priorities.

A second priority is to gain exclusive access to high-ranking Taleban who could be instrumental in starting the desired direct talks the Taleban leadership still refuses to consider, at least officially. This goal of exclusive access includes shutting down other parties’ access to the Taleban or making it more difficult or, as in the Qatar case, putting his stamp on certain communication channels. Earlier, for example, Karzai successfully stopped a UN plan to convene Track II talks in Turkmenistan and criticised a similar meeting held in France late last year (read our earlier analysis here). This concurs with the ‘Afghan lead’ on ‘reconciliation’ postulated by Karzai’s western allies but not really implemented until recently which angered Karzai. Whether going it alone is an effective method to get talks going is another question. Here, third-party mediation might still be a better way, as other internal armed conflicts have shown, from Central America to Aceh.

Taleban that could facilitate direct contacts with their leadership, as Kabul apparently hopes, can be found in two places: jails in Pakistan and Afghanistan.(4) Karzai scored one success on this front when, earlier this year, he forced the US to hand over Bagram prison with its population of captured Taleban including reportedly ‘38 particularly dangerous’ ones. What is not clear, however, is whether this group really includes high-ranking Taleban with access to their leadership, or whether it consists entirely of people involved in drug trafficking and explosives handling, called ‘facilitators’ by the US but who, in fact, are only middle-ranking. The names of the 38 are unknown so far, however, to the public. As we reported in an earlier blog, Karzai successfully objected that the US military continued to have an effective veto on releases of and access to those detainees.

Karzai was less successful with Pakistan, which still holds important Taleban leaders, including Mulla Omar’s former deputy Mulla Abdul Ghani (better known as Mulla Baradar) and hosts the bulk of the movement’s leaders, although it uses to deny this fact. Neither diplomatic pressure nor an embracement strategy worked, the latter in the form of the so-called ‘Peace Process Road Map to 2015’ that allegedly came from the Afghan High Peace Council and promised to make Pakistan the key in any Taleban talks. The over-ambitious sounding paper has in fact been worked out between the palace and the National Security Council(5) and was leaked in December last year (media reporting about it here and the full document here).

Karzai’s recent trip belongs in the category of ‘control it if you cannot prevent it’. Initially, Karzai has been openly hostile to a possible Taleban office abroad and, when news broke in late 2011 that such an office would imminently open in Qatar, he was ready to hazard a diplomatic crisis with the rich emirate and withdrew his ambassador. But this initial rejection was not so much about the office itself but about Kabul being excluded from using it.

Indeed, the idea of the office did not come from the Afghan government but was a result of Germany opening a direct channel with the Taleban in late 2010, including meetings in various Gulf countries, that was later handed or taken over (depending on whose version you trust) by the US. Washington then still hoped to use the office, at least for securing the release of the only US soldier held by the Taleban, Bowe Bergdahl. (The talks stalled early last year and Bergdahl just passed his fourth birthday in the hands of his captors.) The Taleban insisted from the beginning that representatives of Qatar – an Islamic country they trust – participate in the contacts. (Read Ahmad Rashid’s rendering of the story here.)

When it proved unfeasible to shoot down the idea of a Taleban office abroad, Kabul favoured a location in Turkey or Saudi Arabia (see our analysis of this phase here and here). These ideas also did not play out, however. After the Afghan president visited the US earlier this year, amid rumours and hopes that the US channel via Qatar might be revived, he changed his position, at least on the surface, and decided to deal with Qatar directly.

For Qatar, which has established itself as a major mediator in the wider Middle East, from Libya to Syria and now Afghanistan, allowing Karzai to arm-twist it into giving up the idea of a Taleban office would have meant a loss of face. This would also jeopardise the rapport it has established with the Taleban which, after all, will remain an important political actor in a post-2014 Afghanistan. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Emir would have given Karzai the assurances he was seeking and Mawlawi Nuristani was mentioning. This also could explain why Kabul presented itself as so buttoned up after Karzai’s return; an outright diplomatic success would surely have been widely publicised. If a usually well-informed Afghan journalist messaging on social media is right that the deputy chief of the National Security Council, Eng. Ibrahim Spinzada, who was a member in the delegation to Qatar, will be the next Afghan ambassador to the emirate, he will be in charge on the ground to fulfil what Karzai did not achieve during his trip last weekend: to be a watchdog against any Taleban contacts Kabul does not want and to be a conduit for Kabul’s own contacts.

As already mentioned, one problem for the Karzai government is that the Taleban, at least officially, keep insisting that they will not talk to it. Before the visit was announced, the main Taleban spokesman stated that ‘we have no plan of holding negotiations with Karzai in Qatar. We will not hold any kind of talks with the Karzai government’ (quoted here). When Karzai was in Qatar, the same spokesman added that ‘the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is not related to Karzai, it is a matter between the Taliban and the Qatar government. . . . Our representatives who are already in Qatar won’t see or talk to him.’(6) The Indian daily The Hindu called this ‘a scramble for political high ground’ between Kabul and the Taleban before the 2014 withdrawal.

A second major problem for the Afghan government is that high hopes earlier this year that Pakistan finally has started facilitating an Afghan peace process on the basis of mutual benefit have not materialised. Instead, the détente with Pakistan, reflected in the HPC’s ‘Peace Process Road Map’ and accompanied by media hype about Islamabad having changed its position, if not its strategy, toward cooperation, has given way to mutual accusations and confrontation again. As a result, the HPC’s road map has been shelved.

This latest bilateral spat started with unhelpful comments by an unnamed ‘top Pakistani Foreign Ministry official’ on 24 March who called President Karzai ‘the biggest impediment to the peace process’.(7) Although Islamabad two days later denied this was official thinking, it also made it known that it was furious with Karzai because of an interview given after the Chequers meeting in which he spoke of ‘external elements involved in creating instability and fighting, or lawlessness in Afghanistan’ which Islamabad understood as a jab in its own direction.

Similar exchanges followed almost day-by-day. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) claimed the Afghan government supported Pakistani Taleban splinter groups(8) which was strongly rejected by Afghanistan. Kunar’s governor accused Pakistan of having resumed cross-border shelling on 25 and 26 March to which Pakistan raised similar counter-accusations. Kabul cancelled the trip of an army delegation to Quetta which Pakistan called an ‘overreaction’; Afghan interior minister Gholam Mojtaba Patang demanded more border policemen and regular troops to back them up. Kabul accused Pakistan of grabbing Afghan territory while reconstructing border facilities.

Finally, Kabul openly questioned Pakistan’s willingness to support the Afghan peace process. Karzai’s Chief of Staff Abdul Karim Khorram repeated the accusation that Pakistan shelters ‘the groups that come and commit terror acts here’. And Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin called Islamabad a ‘missing link’ in the peace process, suggested it wanted Afghanistan to remain unstable:

What they would like is again a fragmentation of the Afghan state and going back to the drawing board so that they can have another 10 years, at least another decade, of weak, compromised Afghan state.

Apart from the ‘scrambling’ between Kabul and the Taleban, it seems that Afghanistan and Pakistan are also competing for a post-2014 strategic advantage against each other again. The process of Western disengagement from Afghanistan will almost automatically increase the roles of the neighbouring countries. Pakistan’s government, particularly, continues to reserve the right to have a major say in any political settlement in Afghanistan, which is unlikely to happen before the withdrawal of western combat troops is over, but more likely after it. Therefore, it aims to preserve its almost monopolistic access to the Taleban leadership, one of its most valuable cards in the game, vis-à-vis Karzai’s attempts to gradually undermine it. With concern, it also watches Kabul favouring India and the bilateral strategic partnership treaty between both countries, a form of relationship Kabul has so far denied Pakistan (read our recent research on this here). Afghanistan’s official thinking has been told to the Wall Street Journal recently: ‘How can we sign a strategic agreement of friendship with Pakistan when every day we see explosions and suicide bombings – and their roots lead to the other side of the Durand Line? . . . For us, it is important that, before this accord is signed, there is peace.’

This latest about-face in the relationship between the traditionally antagonistic neighbours(9) will almost surely play out to Afghanistan’s detriment. It is difficult to see how Karzai’s attempts to circumvent Pakistan by speaking directly to the Taleban in Qatar can work as long as Pakistan controls access to the Taleban leadership and can decide who is allowed to travel and who is not. (After all, most Taleban leaders are still under UN sanctions, including a travel ban.)(10) This seems as unrealistic as the now-shelved HPC plan with its cheerful reliance on Pakistan’s good offices and its exceptionally short timeline. Seeking the road through Islamabad only might be overly optimistic, seeking one around it unrealistic.

(1) A group of around ten Taleban with their families has reportedly relocated to Qatar to staff the not-yet-open office (see also here). There were also reports about alleged changes in the Taleban’s negotiation team (see herehere and here).

(2) The country’s Foreign Ministry’s website makes no reference to the meeting of the Qatari Emir with President Karzai. There is just a statement dated 14 January this year which somewhat prematurely welcomes the ‘opening’ of a ‘new Taliban bureau’.

(3) The Taleban, meanwhile, are said to have a list of eleven points in the constitution that they want to have changed because, in their view, they contradict sharia. If talks ever come, this will need to be addressed somehow but Kabul might still be able to argue that this would still largely be the same constitution.

(4) Turkey has chosen the same way, by talking to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan who, as a result, has just declared a ceasefire for the Turkish part of Kurdistan, a development surely not lost on the Afghan government.

(5) It was apparently written with a little help of some friends: Its language is reminiscent of a confidential reconciliation ‘action plan’ proposed by Britain and seen by the author in December 2009.

(6) Nevertheless, members of the HPC unofficially insist that some of those Taleban who have been identified as negotiators are already talking to them. A recent meeting in Turkey has been mentioned. This is possible. The Taleban leadership’s official position does not categorically exclude that it is interested, too, in keeping all options open, including a communication channels with Kabul, if it decided to embark on talks before or after the end of 2014, with Karzai or his successor. Massum Stanakzai, as head of the HPC secretariat a leading player on ‘reconciliation’, has just told the BBC that he believes that ‘the majority of the leadership of the Taliban, and those who are associated with them, … really support the peace process to move forward, but I think to come [and say that] publicly and openly it is still a difficult issue, and many people have lost their lives for [doing] that’. He also avoided confrontational language vis-à-vis Pakistan: ‘We will still need the co-operation of other countries, but we are gradually standing on our own feet and we should not always be waiting for others to help us.’.

(7) The official also uttered the kind of prediction of post-2014 gloom that has so rankled many in the Afghan government: ‘In trying to look like a saviour, he is taking Afghanistan straight to hell. . . . I have absolutely no doubt that there will be complete chaos in Afghanistan if a settlement is not reached by 2014. Afghanistan will erupt.’

(8) The quote is as follows: ‘In a report presented to Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, the ISI agency alleged President Hamid Karzai’s administration was in league with groups linked to the main Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] movement, known collectively as the TTS. The report suggested the ‘recent nexus of TTS with Afghan government is likely to enhance the terrorist activities’ in areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border such as Mohman[d], Bajaur, Dir, Swat and Chitral.’ Pakistan’s accusations of Afghan support for TTP splinters groups are unconvincing; of course there is a history of the Afghan government supporting armed insurgents in Pakistan, and maybe the NDS – as any good intelligence service – might be unable to resist the temptation of paying back their adversary across the border (we have no proof, of course). But Pakistan knows very well that most of Kunar and Nuristan, from where some TTP factions operate, are not controlled by the Kabul government, and that Afghan as well as US troops are unable to stop them. The author has not seen the abbreviation TTS used before – maybe it stands for ‘Tehrik-e Taleban splinters’.

(9) Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tense relationship started with the creation of Pakistan in 1947 when the Pashtuns of what had been British India were not allowed to opt for independence in a referendum (which almost certainly would have resulted in an accession with Afghanistan) and Afghanistan voted against Pakistan joining the UN. (Find more details about the bilateral relations in my AAN paper ‘How It All Began: Pre-1979 Origins of Afghanistan’s Conflict’.)

(10) According to the already quoted Guardian report, ‘one senior Afghan source said flights organised by Pakistan for [Taleban] militants to Doha had already been halted’.

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