Talks between the US and Taliban were in disarray last night before they could begin as Washington scrambled to placate fury from Hamid Karzai that the insurgents had been handed a propaganda coup. It appeared that the US had taken a calculated risk in the way it announced the peace process, knowing some aspects would grate with Kabul.
Mr Karzai puts an immediate chill on the talks, which have remained a key component of American strategy in trying to pull away from its commitments in Afghanistan. Kabul laid down new conditions for participating, including that they become a purely Afghan process, which implied moving the venue from Qatar to Afghanistan, and that the Taliban renounce the use of violence.
As Afghanistan’s democratically elected president, Mr Karzai might at the very least expect to be involved in any discussions relating to his country’s future. He is also within his rights to object to the Taliban naming their office in Qatar, where the negotiations supposed to take place, as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
But Obama’s desperation to reach a deal with the Taliban before the last American combat troops return home next year, can push him to go to the most extraordinary lengths to tempt them to the negotiating table – even if it means alienating a key White House ally. Mr Obama, in his desperation to get a deal, might be prepared to make a number of painful concessions.
The meeting was expected to take place in Doha today but the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has said his government will not be attending any talks. But a spokesman for the Taliban confirmed the first conversations with American officials, at low level, would begin as envisaged today. It is still unclear whether the Taliban peace talks would go ahead as planned.
The US team had meanwhile already had informal consultations with Afghan government diplomats in Qatar. Casting an additional shadow was news of a rocket attack by Taliban militants on the Bagram airbase near Kabul that killed four American soldiers.
Expectations are low that the talks will deliver a political settlement of the sort that was hoped for when the first overtures were made to the insurgents five years ago. There were too many cooks, and not enough strategic direction. The whole process has been too secretive. The chances of a last minute political breakthrough are slim and in many ways it reminds us of the experience of the Soviet Union trying to negotiate itself out of Afghanistan.
The Russians failed and saw their appointed government toppled after their departure in a bitter civil war. The Afghan armed forces are now thought to be more durable than those left in charge in 1989, but will be exposed by exit of Nato forces that at their peak numbered 144,000.
In making significant concessions to get to the negotiating table, Washington has limited its aims to those it started out with when it entered the country in 2001 to punish the Taliban for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden. The US is back to its basic reason for being in Afghanistan, which is stopping al-Qaeda. Winning hearts and minds has gone, counter-insurgency has gone. This is now a containment exercise.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst