Guest Post: Why is the Afghan government being excluded from Qatar?

by Joshua Foust on 1/4/2012 · 12 comments

By Grey Maggiano

 

Much has been made of the recent announcement that the U.S. and the Taliban may begin negotiations through a Taliban proxy office in Qatar, but one question raised by the Taliban’s public statement has gone largely unaddressed: Was the exclusion of the Afghan Government from any potential negotiations intentional? And if so why?

The Washington Post makes more of this distinction than NYT or Foreign Policy, though multiple sources have pointed out that the intention is for talks to be between the U.S. and the Taliban.  Since, other than nasty ISAF tweets, the Taliban isn’t particularly responsive – let’s assume this IS intentional.

Then why?  Could this be strategic on the Taliban’s part?  It’s no secret that tensions have increased between the U.S. and Afghanistan in the last year.  U.S. officials have frequently expressed frustration at President Karzai’s public statements and his policy decisions, so perhaps the Taliban are trying to cast themselves as a reasonable, or at least even, counterweight to the current erratic leadership?   This is an appealing argument, but the Taliban are well aware of how they are thought of by the international coalition (not to mention their previous record on human rights) and they also know their reputation can’t be undone just by setting up an office in Qatar.

Then maybe this is an effort to force Karzai’s hand? Challenge him into negotiating?  Unlikely, given Karzai’s (and the Government of Afghanistan’s) efforts to reach out to the Taliban privately, not to mention Karzai’s frequent public statements offering reconciliation to his “long lost brothers and friends” and blaming outside elements for instigating violence and driving a wedge between the Afghan Taliban and the Government.  True, recent attacks on the Karzai family and more direct assaults on Afghan Government (vs. ANA or ISAF) elements on the part of the Taliban have strained relations; but even in these instances Karzai has blamed Pakistan for propping up certain elements of the insurgency.  This bending over backward has led to multiple missteps in negotiations, from faulty payments, to embarrassing leaks, and assassinations.

So what then?  Maybe this is a public relations move on the Taliban’s part.  One can question the Asia Foundation Survey’s methodology, accuracy, and political motivations –but like it or not- it is some of the best data we have on Afghan public opinion. One thing it unquestionably has established is that every year, better than half of those surveyed think that corruption is worse than the year before (nationwide) and that corruption in people’s daily life has increased from 2006 – 2011 (in fact it is one of the few negative indicators in the survey that have increased over time). Perhaps the Taliban is saying, not to the U.S. but to Afghans, that they are the only credible partner to negotiate with right now?  That this troublesome, corrupt government can no more be trusted to end the war than they can be trusted to protect people’s money or pay their bills?  That they, and only they, can speak for the Afghan people?

Presumptuous? Yes. Preposterous? Definitely not.  ABC news does a much better job of polling attitudes about the Taliban than Asia foundation does, and their 2010 survey showed a dramatic increase in the approval for attacks on coalition forces, as well as continued decreases in support for U.S. efforts and the Government of Afghanistan.  This doesn’t mean Afghans are willing to return to pre-2001 Afghanistan, but the Taliban have been working on an image campaign of sorts in the country – voicing support for women’s education, engaging in an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, including setting up their own justice system, and embracing some aspects of the modern world including, apparently, Twitter.

For too long, the international community has blindly ignored the growing support for an alternative government in Afghanistan – one that would be less corrupt, more independent, more responsive to the Afghan public – which is exactly what the more polished elements of the Taliban movement are offering.  Most importantly, only the Taliban leadership can offer the ability to demilitarize the thousands of small militias and criminal enterprises flying their flag all over Afghanistan.   The concern for the U.S. should be that we might get blindsided.  If WE are seen as holding up the peace process because we try and force Karzai’s involvement in the discussions, and in the process get blamed for prolonging the conflict in the Afghan Public, we stand to lose even more.

 

Grey Maggiano spent four years working for the U.S. government on Afghanistan reconstruction efforts and is now seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 12 comments }

Nick Hanz January 4, 2012 at 5:53 pm

The Asia Foundation Survey has zero credibility as it was conducted in Kabul and safe areas with non-pashtun majorities who are obviously opposed to the Taliban.

Secondly, it was paid for and funded by our government, so it doesnt really make for unbiased results.

Don Bacon January 4, 2012 at 6:06 pm

It is confusing, with Karzai saying he agrees with negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S., and the White House saying that it would support and participate in Afghan-led reconciliation efforts. But that’s all smoke.

One historical model which might apply now regards the Vietnam negotiations, when on the surface the U.S. puppet South Vietnam government was involved but the real negotiations (on terms less favorable to the South) were between the U.S. and (North)Vietnam.

The idea was, and it might be true now, that the people who consider themselves the legitimate government don’t wish to negotiate with a U.S. puppet government. Really, in the end it will have to be a US/Taliban agreement which President Karzai will have to accept just as President Thieu had to (unwillingly) accept the Vietnam settlement.. Neither the U.S. nor the Taliban would accept anything less. (The U.S. “Afghan-led” charade was used in Bonn recently, too. Baloney.)

carl January 6, 2012 at 8:33 pm

There is one big difference between the South Vietnamese and the anti-Taliban Afghans. Once the US left, the South Vietnamese had no one else to turn to. When we bug out this time, the anti-Taliban Afghans may be able to choose from among two countries for some help, Iran and Russia. And India may decide to help in a big way whether the anti-Taliban Afghans want it or not. Probably none of those countries want to see an Afghanistan ruled by a resurgent Taliban backed by Pak Army/ISI puffed up with confidence.

Grey January 4, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Nick, I’m no big supporter of the Asia Foundation survey – but in this case, I don’t think more surveys in Taliban controlled areas would change the answers regarding corruption in a positive direction, likely it would just reinforce the point I made above.

the bigger answer to your question is, of course, what other survey out there DOES have a large sample size in Taliban controlled areas in the South and east while maintaining a large enough sample size and following a reasonable scientific model?

Xenophon January 4, 2012 at 8:30 pm

I think the questions MK Bhadrakumar raises in his article, “The Taliban come to roost in Qatar” are of considerable significance, especially the question, “Who are these Taliban?”:

The Taliban have reportedly agreed to open a representative office in Qatar. What is unclear is who are these ‘Taliban’. There is deafening silence in Pakistan, which should have been bestir with excitement that a defining moment has been reached in the Afghan endgame. The silence needs to be interpreted.

But given the tenor of the media briefings by the spokesman of the Pakistani military in the last few days, it doesn’t seem that Pakistan is part of this Qatar show, although ISI chief Shuja Pasha did pay a quiet visit to Doha last week.

However, the big question is whether Mullah Omar is part of this Qatar affair. From the latest reports, he seems to be rallying the various Taliban groups to form a united front to launch a renewed offensive against the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. Not exactly the kind of thing he should be doing when he is reportedly sitting down to talk? Good question.

So, who are these ‘Taliban’ who are in parleys with the US? Conceivably, they include the folks coming under the rubric of ‘moderate Taliban’ who have been living in Kabul under Hamid Karzai’s lock and key and enjoying state hospitality. In sum, they could be shifting residence from the ’safe houses’ in Kabul to the ’safe houses’ in Doha. Then, there are the interlocutors who pop up as Taliban ‘representatives’. No one is in any position to know who they are or what credentials they enjoy to speak on behalf of the Taliban.
Finally, the question arises whether there is a unified Taliban opposition as such that the Americans can engage. It seems Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s son-in-law is currently camping in Kabul to meet the NATO officials, possibly seeking accommodation in Qatar, while he himself is living in Peshawar.

The crunch time comes when the Taliban’s former commander-in-chief Mullah Mohammed Fazl arrives in Qatar on a long tiring flight with mid-air refuelling from Guantanamo Bay. Mullah Fazl’s ‘reintegration’ into the Afghan jihadi tapestry will need to be skillfully handled.
The guy has a lot of blood on his hands. While living and working in Tashkent, I heard terrible stories about his activities in Mazar-i-Sharif. Such as packs of wild dogs eating up the corpses of hundreds (or thousands) of Hazara Shi’ites including women and children executed there in that horrendous period of August-September 1998.

His metamorphosis as an Islamist politician in a democratic era will be something to watch. That is, if he doesn’t go berserk after having lived in a 2 metre x 1 metre underground cell in Guantanamo Bay for 9 years. How will he take to the sight of the sea? And all the good things in life that Qatar is famous for? This is by far going to be one of the epic stories of the entire Arab Spring.

What is crystal clear is that the Barack Obama administration is in tearing hurry to take peace parleys to some visible point by the time the NATO summit is held in Chicago in May. Or else, it will become increasingly difficult to persuade the Europeans to take any more interest in the war at such a time when their own house is on fire. Their debt repayment liabilities alone in 2012 apparently work out to some 500 billion euros and they can’t afford this war anymore.

Don Bacon January 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm

If Mullah Omar is increasing his military capability it makes a great deal of sense. Each side will be claiming potential victory as they go into negotiations, looking as strong as possible to improve their chances of a better deal.

Xenophon January 5, 2012 at 5:41 am

Yes, that’s certainly one possibility.

Dan_Smock January 5, 2012 at 12:08 pm

I agree with what Grey’s saying. And I love lamp.

On a more serious note, Grey’s point re: the Asia Foundation survey is a valid one — it does tell us some really interesting (and troubling) things about the attitudes of the people of Afghanistan. Where the trouble lies is in the interpretation of that data and its use by PAO spin machines.

Of greater concern in these negotiations is who we’re actually dealing with, and how much control Mullah Omar (or anyone) has over the various factions anymore.

Thanks in large part to ISAF’s capture/kill campaign, the once-united front the Taliban portrayed in various forms of media now would appear to be fairly fractured. Not so long ago, when Mullah Omar made a pronouncement, all of the Taliban listened. Now, with what appears to an increasingly fractured and diminished leadership at work, the greatest concern should be that whoever we talk to, can they truly control the elements as needed?

Grey January 6, 2012 at 10:34 am

Thanks Dan, though I do think some critique of Asia’s methodology is necessary, in part because they don’t ask the right questions. I am surprised that they still have not included questions about the Afghan public’s sentiment to the Taliban or opposition political parties, for instance.

I think you overstate the “unity” of the Taliban movement historically in Afghanistan. My earliest frame of reference (2007) suggests that “Taliban” was already being used to label a whole host of political, criminal, insurgent and narcotic related activities in Afghanistan – many of whom had little or no connection to the Original “Taliban” power base. A more aggressive capture/kill campaign MAY have exacerbated this… but I don’t think its anything new.

The Sanity Inspector January 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm

If we were winning, the Taliban would be feeling us out, rather than v.v.

Boris Sizemore January 6, 2012 at 2:32 am

The irony of the Qatar office should be obvious to everyone, even the Taliban. This location and failure to coordinate this with anyone at all virtually kills off any chance for this “office” being central to any negotiations involving this conflict.

Rome was the first choice from what I hear.

This is absolute sideshow. Like the Shop Keeper from last year, the desire to have someone to talk to is overcoming the reality of what has happened over the past five years of this “war.”

DOD is being rushed out, and really needs the funds to maintain a core force after the cuts. The Europeans checked out long ago, via caveats and are flying personnel out already on a monthly basis. Only Poland has not got the word yet, but they will.

The “we are not at war with the Taliban” statement from Biden was the new line and speaking point for 2012. We are getting out anyway so why not call the war off in advance?

The Fantasy of the Taliban office should be great entertainment as State and Agency try to magically figure who is and who is not talking for whom when they meet at the local Pizza Huts ala Beirut with their new “sources” and start drawing up a plan, without the the involvement of the Afghan Government or Pakistan in any of this.

Expecting Fazl or some other “detainee” to freedom to save the day for peace with honor is really a bit of fictional licence, that must be tolerated as the veil on the Emperor’s clothes starts coming off in earnest.

Karzai is being treated as a leper in Kabul. Non Pashtun groups and their leadership, with what remains of the “loyal Pashtun” forces are expecting to be left to the slaughter. Karzai and his
“brother Taliban” line of inquiry is mocked, and everyone knows that this is not going to end nicely for the Government or its backers. Ennui set in long ago, the rush to exits is becoming frantic by everyone that can get out in advance. If it sounds familiar, it should.

With the US effectively locked out of influence with Pakistan and with Karzai himself, relying on the Qatar office is more prayer than policy.

Reality is that the Taliban/Pakistan forces have a rough control of about 30% of the country now and will continue to pressure for more in the next several years. This is the launch point for the future post Nato conflict, and the probable end of GoIA as we know it today.

Very little will transpire in the near future, other than keeping up the hopes of the hopeful who somehow think that the “non enemy” has any intention other than the reestablishment of complete control over Afghanistan. The Office in Qatar is the center of hopes and later the center of failure as this conflict moves towards its logical conclusion.

The “nice try” moniker is well deserved, but “close enough” for Government work will not wash on this latest effort coming out from State. There is nothing independent about this office, nor was there ever any intention of this serving as true office for anything real involving peace talks at all.

In fact alienating Karzai and Pakistan at the same time is a difficult challenge, but incredibly not impossible to achieve for our intelligent diplomats and the Emir of Qatar.

Success breeds success.

Don Bacon January 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Again, going back to the Vietnam model, if their are and substantive talks going on then (1) they would be highly secret and (2) they wouldn’t include Afghanistan, AKA the U.S. COIN “Host Nation.” /s

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