Wide dis­trust im­per­ils talks on Afghanistan

Peace­ful 2014 pull­out in doubt

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY ASHISH KUMAR SEN

Afghanistan’s peace process is crum­bling amid dis­trust among all the key play­ers — the U.S., Pak­istan, the Afghan pres­i­dent and the Tal­iban, who con­tinue to at­tack Amer­i­can and NATO troops.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had bol­stered its at­tempts to end the war with the Tal­iban ahead of a planned with­drawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2014, but those ef­forts now ap­pear to have be­come bogged down in sus­pi­cion.

Fail­ure to rec­on­cile the Tal­iban, who ruled Afghanistan be­fore the 2001 U.s.-led in­va­sion, with the Western-backed gov­ern­ment in Kabul could aban­don the coun­try to civil strife — like that in post-u.s.-oc­cu­pied Iraq — af­ter in­ter­na­tional forces leave the coun­try.

“The way rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is go­ing on right now is ex­tremely ad hoc. It is be­ing con­ducted in

an en­vi­ron­ment of mis­trust,” said Said Jawad, who served as Afghanistan’s am­bas­sador to the U.S. from 2003 to 2010.

“There is no mu­tual trust and agreed- upon base lines among Afghans and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, Pak­istan and Afghanistan, Pak­istan and the U.S., and Pak­istan and those el­e­ments of the Tal­iban that are reach­ing out to us or the Amer­i­cans,” Mr. Jawad said.

Omar Sa­mad, a for­mer Afghan am­bas­sador to France and Canada, said the peace process is “in a state of con­fu­sion and dis­ar­ray.”

“Diplo­matic en­deav­ors lack co­or­di­na­tion, and the par­ties are on dif­fer­ent pages with lit­tle real move­ment,” Mr. Sa­mad said.

Height­ened ten­sions

The Tal­iban an­nounced in Jan­uary that it would set up an of­fice in Qatar to fa­cil­i­tate peace talks.

But Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai has been reluc­tant to em­brace the pro­posal, which is sup­ported by the U.S. He would rather have Saudi Ara­bia or Turkey host the talks.

Mr. Karzai fa­vors Saudi Ara­bia be­cause it com­mands re­spect as the cus­to­dian of the Mus­lim holy shrines and has in­flu­ence over Pak­istan, which U.S. and Afghan of­fi­cials ac­cuse of shel­ter­ing the Tal­iban.

“Qatar is not final yet as far as we are con­cerned,” said an Afghan of­fi­cial, who, like other Afghan and Western of­fi­cials in­ter­viewed for this re­port, spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive is­sues.

“We need to first agree on where the talks take place. Saudi Ara­bia or Turkey [is] more ap­pro­pri­ate for ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban,” the of­fi­cial said.

Ten­sions have es­ca­lated be­tween the U.S. and Afghan gov­ern­ments since the Feb. 25 slay­ings of two U.S. mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers in­side the In­te­rior Min­istry in Kabul. The two were among six U.S. troops killed by Afghan se­cu­rity forces in the back­lash that fol­lowed the ac­ci­den­tal burn­ing of Ko­rans at a U.S. mil­i­tary base in east­ern Afghanistan.

The Tal­iban has claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for some of the at­tacks, rais­ing ques­tions about its com­mit­ment to the peace process.

On Wed­nes­day, six Bri­tish troops were killed when an ex­plo­sion hit their ar­mored ve­hi­cle in Hel­mand prov­ince in south­west­ern Afghanistan.

The U.s.-pak­istani re­la­tion­ship also is at a low point af­ter a se­ries of in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing a U.S. com­mando raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in Pak­istan and a NATO at­tack on two bor­der posts in Novem­ber that left 24 Pak­istani sol­diers dead.

Mean­while, U.S. of­fi­cials have ac­cused el­e­ments of Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vice of aid­ing the Tal­iban in north­west Pak­istan, from where the mil­i­tants di­rect at­tacks in Afghanistan.

Pak­istani sup­port is key to the suc­cess of the peace process, but “Pak­istan- U. S. ten­sions have stopped Pak­istan think­ing about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” said a Western of­fi­cial. “There is an enor­mous amount of mis­trust all around.”

Cur­rent and for­mer Afghan of­fi­cials de­scribe as frosty their coun­try’s re­la­tion­ship with Pak­istan.

“The chal­lenge of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is that we are im­ple­ment­ing con­fi­dence-build­ing mea­sures with the Tal­iban on the other side of the ta­ble with­out hav­ing enough con­fi­dence be­tween the al­lies them­selves on this side of the ta­ble,” Mr. Jawad said.

“And this will ben­e­fit the Tal­iban, be­cause it looks like ev­ery­one is rush­ing to reach out and talk to the Tal­iban,” he added.

Prisoner trans­fer

Peace ef­forts have been fur­ther en­dan­gered by a de­lay in Washington to respond to a Tal­iban de­mand to trans­fer five of its top op­er­a­tives from the U.S. mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity at Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar, ac­cord­ing to some an­a­lysts.

“These de­lays are strength­en­ing the hands of op­po­nents of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion within the Tal­iban,” said Michael Sem­ple, a fel­low at the Carr Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights Pol­icy at Har­vard Kennedy School.

“The na­tional se­cu­rity of the United States is now far bet­ter served by park­ing these five men in a gilded cage in Qatar, at which point real di­plo­macy starts, than keep­ing them in Cuba,” he said. “Fur­ther de­lay in get­ting the pris­on­ers there will mean that the spring fight­ing sea­son is upon us be­fore di­plo­macy is given a chance.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been brief­ing mem­bers of Congress on the de­tails of the trans­fer and has yet to reach a final decision.

Any decision to trans­fer the de­tainees would be un­der­taken in “full ac­cor­dance with U.S. law and in con­sul­ta­tion with Congress,” said Noel Clay, a State Depart­ment spokesman.

An Afghan del­e­ga­tion is ex­pected to travel soon to Guan­tanamo Bay to meet with the five de­tainees and as­cer­tain the con­di­tions for their trans­fer. The trans­fer of the de­tainees’ fam­i­lies to Qatar is one of the is­sues.

De­spite state­ments from U.S. of­fi­cials that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion should be an Afghan-led process, Afghan of­fi­cials com­plain pri­vately that they have not been kept in the loop on U.S. ef­forts to en­gage the Tal­iban.

“Pres­i­dent Karzai has felt left out of cru­cial con­tacts, like Qatar, at least ini­tially, and this clearly con­tra­dicts the Western line of an ‘Afghan-led’ [process], which was lip ser­vice in most of the cases any­way,” said Thomas Rut­tig, co-di­rec­tor of the Afghanistan An­a­lysts Net­work in Kabul.

Afghan of­fi­cials in­sist that the process must be Afghan-led if it is to suc­ceed.

“With­out a lead­ing role for the gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan, ev­ery­body un­der­stands that this process will not go any­where,” said a sec­ond Afghan of­fi­cial.

Mr. Karzai’s own ef­forts to take the lead have been thwarted by the Tal­iban, which re­fuses to talk to what it con­sid­ers a “pup­pet” gov­ern­ment.

For­mer mil­i­tants on the Afghan gov­ern­ment’s High Peace Coun­cil, which is tasked with rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, serve as a con­duit to the Tal­iban.

“Through their per­sonal con­nec­tions, you can do things that you can­not oth­er­wise,” said the sec­ond Afghan of­fi­cial.

Pre­vi­ous ef­forts to ini­ti­ate talks with the Tal­iban have been stopped in their tracks by de­ceit and death.

In 2010, Western of­fi­cials were duped by an im­pos­tor claim­ing to rep­re­sent the Tal­iban. In Septem­ber, for­mer Afghan Pres­i­dent Burhanud­din Rab­bani, who led the High Peace Coun­cil, was as­sas­si­nated by a man who said he was a Tal­iban ne­go­tia­tor.

Afghan of­fi­cials say the talks so far with the Tal­iban have been ex­ploratory.

“What we have done is to make sure that we are talk­ing to the right peo­ple, that they have ac­cess to the right chain of com­mand,” said the sec­ond Afghan of­fi­cial.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A Cana­dian Army sol­dier, men­tor­ing the Afghan Na­tional Army, fol­lows a train­ing ses­sion of Afghan Na­tional Army sol­diers at the Kabul Mil­i­tary Train­ing Cen­ter on the out­skirts of Kabul on Wed­nes­day. The Afghan Na­tional Army will be tasked with pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity through­out Afghanistan af­ter the last in­ter­na­tional troops pull out in 2014.

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