Afghan President Karzai Suspends Taliban Talks
Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday announced a major review of his government’s peace strategy, saying that he would no longer talk to the Taliban and instead would negotiate directly with Pakistan.[i] The real authority to negotiate with is “governments, not their proxies,” he said, adding that he would soon convene a Loya Jirga, a traditional assembly, to decide on how to bring about peace in the country.[ii]
The policy shift comes after last month’s assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president who chaired the High Peace Council, and reflects Karzai’s frustration at not being able to persuade the Taliban to join the peace process. The council has made little headway since its creation a year ago as the Taliban leadership has rejected talks and responded with violence to Kabul’s “one-sided” concessions, such as releasing prisoners and offering senior positions in the government. Last fall, a purported senior Taliban leader in talks with NATO and Karzai turned out to be an imposter,[iii] and earlier this year, U.S. talks with a Taliban representative stalled when the latter went missing after his name was leaked to the media.
Rabbani’s death has also strained ties between Kabul and Islamabad. Afghan officials say the assassin was a Pakistani national[iv] and accuses Pakistan’s intelligence agency—the ISI—of complicity. Afghan and U.S. officials have also accused the ISI of aiding last month’s attack against the U.S. embassy in Kabul—allegations Pakistan denies. On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s acting intelligence chief told the parliament that fifteen ISI-supported insurgent groups were operating against the Afghan government.[v] To step up pressure on Islamabad and in a sign of a shift in regional realignments, Karzai on Tuesday inked a strategic pact with New Delhi, which involves training and equipping Afghanistan’s security forces and will arouse more ire of Pakistani leaders who see increasing Indian role in their backyard with suspicion.
The shift is also a move by the embattled Afghan president to mollify former Northern Alliance leaders who resent Karzai’s one-sided peace efforts with the Taliban, especially after Rabbani’s killing. Atta Muhammad Noor, the influential governor of northern Balkh Province, said peace with the Taliban was “meaningless”[vi] and called on supporters to “stay united and take revenge.”[vii] If the government fails to change its Taliban policy, he warned, “we will use the mujahedeen who have experience of war against the Soviets and the Taliban.”[viii] Other Northern Alliance leaders issued similar ultimatums.
Newspapers in Kabul welcomed cancelation of peace talks with the Taliban. Afghanistan Daily wrote that the government wasted a lot of energy and time in trying to talk to the Taliban although the insurgents’ response has been increasing violence and murder. Sarnawesht Daily predicted that Karzai’s “brotherly policy” toward Pakistan would change. Mandagar, another Afghan daily, argued that Karzai’s policy shift was meant to avert the formation of a strong anti-government opposition alliance.[ix]
Rabbani’s killing, the latest in a series of high-profile assassinations this year, and souring relations between Kabul and Islamabad mean that a political solution to end the decade-long conflict is not in the offing. As the U.S. and NATO forces are rushing for an exit, regional countries have stepped up jockeying to fill the vacuum, and inside Afghanistan, there is an increasing fear of a return to the 1990s civil war and a Taliban comeback—prompting many former Northern Alliance commanders to rearm militias and stockpile weapons.
Only a long-term commitment by the U.S. and NATO allies would help sustain gains of the past decade and guarantee the country’s stability in the future. A premature abandonment of Afghanistan will turn the country into a battlefield for proxy wars by competing neighbors, which would further destabilize the region and benefit the Taliban and al Qaeda.