The many obstacles to a resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan were sadly obvious this week as Afghan and international officials tried to mark the war’s transition into a final phase. President Hamid Karzai suspended negotiations with the United States Wednesday, protesting newly announced peace talks between the United States and the Taliban:
The Taliban was sending “messages of a continuation of war and bloodshed,” said a statement from Karzai’s office. It said the Afghan government no longer plans to send envoys to monitor the U.S.-Taliban peace talks in Doha, Qatar, but remains willing to consider joining those talks should they be moved from Doha to Kabul.
Adding to the complexity of launching the talks, the Taliban on Wednesday claimed responsibility for a rocket attack that killed four American troops at Bagram air base. . .
U.S. officials had worked for weeks with Qatar to have a clear understanding of what would be said during Tuesday’s Taliban press event, at which the insurgent group announced the opening of its Doha office and — in response to a U.S. demand — pledged not to launch attacks on outside countries from Afghan soil. . .
Both American and Afghan officials were taken aback, however, by two details of the Taliban event that had not been agreed on: The Taliban displayed the group’s flag during the event and spoke in front of a banner that proclaimed, in Arabic, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Karzai insists that a Taliban political office in Doha be used only for peace negotiations, and not as a base for an alternative Afghan government. To him, the banner and the flag violated that requirement.
“The president is not happy with the name of the office,” Aimal Faizi, a Karzai spokesman, told the Reuters news agency after Karzai’s office said it would suspend negotiations with the United States. “We oppose the title the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ because such a thing doesn’t exist.”
Max Fisher explains the significance of the Taliban representatives’ flag:
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.
On Tuesday, the Afghan military formally assumed leadership from the U.S.-led NATO coalition, just an hour after a Taliban bomb killed three people in Kabul:
During a ceremony at an elite Afghan military training camp near Kabul, Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared together to announce that the U.S.-led international coalition was now in a supporting role countrywide. The event was largely symbolic, but it was celebrated across Afghanistan as a milestone and a moment of national pride. . .
Karzai and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, chairman of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Transition Coordination Commission, repeatedly stressed that they want additional high-powered weapons, including tanks and airplanes, to combat what they view as threats from regional rivals.
But after an infusion of $54 billion in U.S. aid and billions more from coalition partners to build up Afghanistan’s military and police forces, NATO and Pentagon officials say they remain optimistic about Afghan forces’ ability to head up security in even the toughest regions of the country.
“Your forces are showing great courage, great skill, and making great sacrifices,” Rasmussen said.
Although about 97,000 NATO troops remain in the country, including 68,000 U.S. troops, Rasmussen said coalition forces will fall back into support, logistical and training roles. Gradual troop reductions are slated to continue this year and accelerate after Afghanistan’s national elections in the spring.
In Berlin, President Obama acknowledged that negotiating an end to the war will be difficult: