The Obama administration, eager for a political settlement to the decade-long war, saw Karzai’s acquiescence to the Qatar office as a signal that his government is on board with a process that had been stagnant for years but has lurched to life in recent weeks.
In interviews, however, Afghan officials say they feel sidelined and misled, left guessing at the character of the negotiations, even as U.S. officials emphasize the importance of “Afghan-led” talks.
“If we continue this way, we’re doomed,” said Shaida M. Abdali, Karzai’s deputy national security adviser.
Marc Grossman, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will visit Kabul on Saturday for what Afghan officials say will be a pivotal point in negotiations. The officials say they will demand increased clarity from the U.S. diplomat, and a promise that the peace process will promptly become Afghan-led.
The United States insists that it has kept Karzai briefed throughout the nascent peace process, and that early contacts with Taliban representatives were intended only to build confidence before real negotiations begin between the Afghan government and the insurgency. U.S. officials also claim that they have slowed the process at Karzai’s request, and that there have been no direct contacts with the Taliban since October.
But senior Afghan officials, who agreed in principle to early talks between U.S. envoys and the Taliban, say American diplomats have overplayed their hand, making tentative concessions that Karzai opposes and creating distrust that could cripple the peace effort.
The Afghan government is now operating from a position of “deep suspicion,” according to one senior Karzai adviser. The suspicion stems from both the substance of early talks between the United States and the Taliban, and disappointment that after more than a year of quiet negotiations, Karzai is still not playing a lead role, said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Late last year, the United States had prepared to transfer Taliban prisoners who are now being held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar, where they would be held under house arrest. In return, the Taliban would publicly repudiate international terrorism. But Karzai blocked the deal, insisting that if the prisoners were to be released, they should be handed over to the Afghan government, U.S. officials have said.