WHAT is to be made of President Hamid Karzai's public admonishment of the United States in his recent statements? These assertions marred the first visit of the new American Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to Kabul. More importantly they raise questions about the Afghan president's intentions and role in the political transition ahead, which will determine how peaceful the path will be to 2014 and beyond.
There are several ways to read Karzai's comments that included the accusation that Washington is colluding with the Taliban to prolong the war. One interpretation is that such statements simply expressed his pique and frustration over the unresolved dispute with the US on transferring Afghan detainees to his government under a previously agreed deadline. A presidential spokesman explained that Karzai made these public comments when his privately voiced complaints to western leaders went unheard.
Another explanation might be that as Nato's 2014 withdrawal deadline and an end to his final presidential term approaches, Karzai is anxious to cast himself as a nationalist and demonstrate that he is no puppet of Washington. An increasingly insecure Karzai may also be lashing out at the US to stonewall intensified diplomatic efforts to open talks with the Taliban aimed at finding a political solution - a process that he thinks might marginalise him. In one recent statement he assailed 'secret talks' that he alleged were going on between western countries and the Taliban.
This suggests that far from being a sudden outburst, the Afghan president's charged rhetoric seems a calculated move to raise the stakes on a number of issues and signal that he cannot be ignored in US plans to shape the Afghan endgame. These statements also serve to convey that without him Washington should not expect to conclude the Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow for the presence and legal immunity of American forces beyond 2014. A presidential spokesman made the linkage quite explicit: "lack of trust" shown by the US over the prisoners and other matters would have "a negative impact on the Bilateral Security
Dr Maleeha Lodhi Agreement".
Besides jockeying for leverage, Karzai has taken a stance on diplomatic efforts to launch peace talks that has increasingly become an obstacle in the process. This was more than evident at last month's summit meeting at Chequers between the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Britain. On almost every issue necessary to move the political process forward Karzai played the role of spoiler.
He rejected any more informal meetings between different Afghan groups and Taliban representatives, such as those held in Paris, Kyoto and Oslo. His virulent opposition led to cancellation of the UN-sponsored Track II meeting in Ashgabat that was to convene this month. These discussions are widely regarded as building blocks for formal negotiations down the road aimed at finding a political settlement.
President Karzai also refused to support the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar except on terms that he knows are unacceptable to others. The US, Pakistan and the rest of the international community see this office as the venue and starting point for sustained negotiations designed to lead to an intra-Afghan dialogue to pursue 'reconciliation'. Although he assured President Obama of support for the office during his January visit to Washington, Karzai subsequently went back on this commitment.
In London he made his support conditional on assurances that the office be used only for talks between the Taliban and his government appointed High Peace Council (HPC) and no other purpose. Taliban leaders have repeatedly refused to talk to the Karzai government and insisted instead on direct dialogue with the Americans.
Before and after the Chequers meeting, Karzai is said to have told his national security team that the US, Britain, Pakistan and the Taliban were colluding in a 'conspiracy' to 'oust' him and his government. He also accused Pakistan of trying to deal him out of discussions about Afghanistan's future by seeking to bring representatives of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban together. He is also reported to have sent emissaries to Saudi Arabia and Turkey to persuade them to open a Taliban office in their country - a transparent bid to scuttle the Doha office. These moves received no traction in those capitals but strengthened the impression elsewhere that Karzai was trying to forestall the Qatar process.
As the first step towards setting a peace process in motion is to open the Qatar office, Karzai's obstructive behaviour has emerged as the principal reason for delay and the persisting impasse over this. If this process has become hostage to Karzai's machinations, this is also because he has been able to exploit the lack of clarity informing the diplomatic effort so far. The Obama administration for its part has yet to show the kind of urgency that sets a clear direction and injects momentum into this effort. Moreover, Pakistan and the US also have differing views about how to end the impasse and get the peace process going. American officials argue that Washington has met several of the Taliban's key concerns and the onus now lies with their leadership. To move forward the Taliban need to issue two statements to pave the way for the Doha office to formally open.