Reports claim that Afghan President Karzai has been engaged in secret peace talks with the Taliban without taking the US on board. Experts say the move can jeopardize the country's already strained ties with Washington.
US-Afghan ties have suffered another setback by claims that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is trying to make a peace deal with the Taliban insurgents while excluding its biggest financier, the United States. The New York Times reported on Monday, February 3, that the move was initiated by the Taliban in November last year - a time when Karzai's relations started to deteriorate with Washington.
"I can confirm that ... the Taliban are willing more than ever to join the peace process," Aimal Faizi, the spokesman for Karzai, told Reuters. "Contacts have been made and we are also in touch with them."
A member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which has been assigned the task to reach out to the country's former Islamist rulers, also confirmed that talks have been held.
"Talks took place in Dubai three weeks ago between government officials and the Taliban who flew from Doha, but we are still waiting to see the result," the Council member told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
In June, 2013, the US tried to hold direct talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. In 2011 too, the US made serious efforts to negotiate with the extremists to find a solution to the decade-long Afghan conflict which began after the terrorist attacks against America on September 11, 2001. Both unilateral US efforts didn't bear any results.
The New York Times report suggests that Karzai's refusal to endorse the proposed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan anf the US has already antagonized his American backers. The President's clandestine contacts with the Taliban might end hopes of any agreement whatsoever.
President Karzai and the US continue to disagree on the BSA which would allow some US troops to operate in Afghanistan after the NATO drawdown scheduled for the end of this year. American personnel are expected to train the Afghan security forces as they struggle to cope with the persistent Taliban insurgency.
The Afghan Loya Jirga, a grand assembly of about 2,500 tribal leaders and other influential Afghans, had expressed their support for the agreement in November 2013. Karzai, however, has repeatedly refused to sign the pact.
Of late, President Karzai has launched verbal attacks against the US government and NATO, who he holds responsible for civilian deaths and chaos in the country.
Analysts say the reports about the Afghan-Taliban talks seem credible. "The US was definitely not involved in these talks," Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told DW. "The state of US-Afghan relations is so bad that it is hard to believe the two countries could have cooperated on something as delicate as peace talks," he added.
The analyst believes that both Karzai and the Taliban have their own reasons to engage in a dialogue. "The Taliban may have wanted to take advantage of Karzai's deteriorating relations with Washington, and perhaps sidetrack him from making any progress on the security agreement with Washington. For Karzai, a deal with the Islamists is probably his country's best chance for stability," Kugelman said.
The Afghanistan expert also thinks Washington's exclusion from the talks is not a bad thing. "Afghanistan's future is best negotiated by the country's sovereign government and by the insurgency trying to overthrow it. There's no reason why a foreign power needs to be intimately involved with what, in the end, is a very internal and domestic matter for Afghanistan," Kugelman elaborated.
But that makes the future of Afghanistan even more uncertain and puts the US-Afghan security cooperation in jeopardy. American officials say that in the present situation, they are not sure whether the US administration will maintain even minimal security ties with Karzai or whoever succeeds him after the April 5 presidential election.
The vote is largely viewed as a key test of the effectiveness of the Afghan national army in securing the country as international troops prepare for the drawdown.
"The continuation of West's assistance to Afghanistan is essential to the security of the country and also the next government in Kabul," Siegfried O Wolf, a South Asia expert at Heidelberg University, told DW. "Any further delay of a security agreement between Kabul and Washington will further destabilize the country. In addition, it will encourage the Taliban and other Islamist groups to step up their militants activities," he added.
Pakistani peace talks
Neighboring Pakistan, too, is planning to hold peace talks with the Tekrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - its own version of the Taliban. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif named a four-member committee last week to facilitate dialogue with the militants. In response, the Taliban nominated their own negotiators.
The first round of talks, which was supposed to take place on Tuesday, February 4, got cancelled after the government mediators cited doubts over some members of the Taliban team who opted out of the committee.
The same day, the Islamists targeted a congested market in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing nine people and wounding more than thirty.
Many in Pakistan doubt the proposed peace talks with the TTP will succeed. Analysts argue the militants want to engage in talks only to win time so that they can prepare and launch more attacks on civilians and security forces.
Himayat Ullah, an opposition member in the National Assembly (lower house of the Pakistani parliament), says the Taliban cannot be trusted. "The Taliban breached all peace deals in the past," Ullah told DW, adding the military operation was the only way to deal with extremists.
Experts, however, are of the view that decisive military action by both Pakistan and Afghanistan against the Taliban seems all the more unlikely after the two South Asian countries have "symbolically surrendered" to the extremists.