The ultimate symbol of why Afghan peace talks will be so difficult

June 19, 2013

Muhammad Naeem, a representative of the Taliban, speaks during a press conference at the official opening of the group's office in Doha, Qatar. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)

Peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan have not even begun yet – they're slated to kick off Thursday in Doha, between the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban – and they've already hit three setbacks. First, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four Americans. Second, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced he was no longer planning to participate in either the talks or a separate troop-level negotiation with the United States. And, third, the Taliban's new office in Doha flew a banner labeled "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" and a flag from its days of ruling the country.

All three are individually bad signs that represent much larger challenges for peace in Afghanistan. In some ways, though, it's the flag that's most serious.

The Taliban strike is a reminder of the group's military reach, something of which the United States was already painfully aware, and is perhaps meant to signal as much going into negotiations. Karzai's temper tantrum is both consistent with his past behavior and, in negotiating terms, a logical move on his part. He has the weakest hand of all three players so he'd naturally want to do whatever he can to strengthen it; in this case, by quitting to protest insufficient Afghan involvement.

The Taliban flag and banner, though, banal though they may seem, are symbolic of some much deeper and more difficult issues for any prospective peace talks. It's not just about the Taliban being undiplomatic. The flag and banner, which date to the group's rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, send the message that the Taliban still sees themselves as the rightful government of Afghanistan, not just an insurgent group. Any peace deal likely would incorporate them into the existing Afghan government. But a major question surrounding the peace talks is the degree to which they would maintain Karzai's government, only now with some Taliban inclusion, or would revert Afghanistan to a measure of Taliban rule.

Karzai fumed, with reason, that the Taliban's flag and banner portray the group as an alternative government to his own. But, like many insults, it's painful precisely because there's some truth to it: almost 12 years after being toppled from power, the Taliban still appears to have a wide base of support, while Karzai has struggled to project his influence much beyond Kabul. According to the Qatari government, the Taliban was supposed to label itself as the "Political Bureau of the Taliban Afghan in Doha." The fact they instead portrayed themselves as the leaders of a version of Afghanistan that the United States has fought for 12 years to abolish suggests that they've held on to the old days of the Islamic Emirate and may still think of themselves, to some degree, as its rightful government.

A major hurdle of even bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table has been convincing them that their power in the country is sufficiently contested that they have no choice but to accept that the era of Taliban rule is over, that they must recognize at least some elements of the Karzai government and U.S. demands. If they still don't even recognize the country's 2001 name change from "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" to "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" then it's not clear how seriously they take the other changes of the last 12 years.

The flag and banner are also reminders that the Taliban maintain a vision for Afghanistan so fundamentally different from the United States' or Karzai's that they literally assign the country a different name. The three players in the negotiations all have competing visions for the end result: the negotiations succeed only if all three parties can agree on what the post-war Afghanistan will look like. We already knew that the United States and Karzai were probably going to have to accept some painful concessions to the Taliban. But the fact that the group is still holding on to the Islamic Emirate of 1996 to 2001 suggests that the distance between their position and those of the U.S. and Karzai may be wider than we'd like.

Of course, it's just a flag and a banner, which do not in themselves prove all that much. You can actually see the flag in question, black text on white background, in the above photo from the Taliban's official event opening the Doha office. The text, it's hard to miss, is highly pixelated, as if someone printed the flag from a too-small image file and didn't bother to sharpen it. But what's discouraging is precisely the fact that these pre-2001 tokens are consistent with the Taliban's apparent view of itself and of its position going into peace talks, their sense that it's just a matter of time until they resume their rightful place ruling over an Islamic Emirate that we thought we'd abolished 12 very long years ago.

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Max Fisher · June 18, 2013