Karzai’s secret Taliban talks put strain on US relations
White House increasingly frustrated by Afghan president’s actions
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban about reaching a peace agreement without the involvement of his US and Western allies, further corroding already strained relations with the United States.
The secret contacts appear to help explain a string of actions by Karzai that seem intended to antagonise his US backers, Western and Afghan officials said. In recent weeks, Karzai has continued to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington that he negotiated, insisted on releasing hardened Taliban militants from prison and distributed distorted evidence of what he called US war crimes.
The clandestine contacts with the Taliban have borne little fruit, according to people who have been told about them. But they have helped undermine the remaining confidence between the United States and Karzai, making the already messy endgame of the Afghan conflict even more volatile.
Support for the war effort in Congress has deteriorated sharply, and US officials say they are uncertain whether they can maintain even minimal security co-operation with Karzai’s government or its successor after coming elections. Frustrated by Karzai’s refusal to sign the security agreement, which would clear the way for US troops to stay on for training and counterterrorism work after the end of the year, President Barack Obama has summoned his top commanders to the White House for a meeting on Tuesday to consider the future of the US mission in Afghanistan.
Western and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the peace contacts, said that the outreach was apparently initiated by the Taliban in November, a time of deepening mistrust between Karzai and his allies. Karzai seemed to jump at what he believed was a chance to achieve what the Americans were unwilling or unable to do, and reach a deal to end the conflict - a belief that few in his camp shared.
The peace contacts, though, have yielded no tangible agreement, nor even progressed as far as opening negotiations for one. And it is not clear whether the Taliban ever intended to seriously pursue negotiations, or were simply trying to derail the security agreement by distracting Karzai and leading him on, as many of the officials said they suspected.
As recently as October, a long-term agreement between the US and Afghanistan seemed to be only a few formalities away from completion, following a special visit by secretary of state John Kerry. The terms were settled, and a loya jirga, or assembly of prominent Afghans, that the president summoned to ratify the deal gave its approval.
The continued presence of US troops after 2014, not to mention billions of dollars in aid, depended on the president’s signature. But Karzai repeatedly balked, perplexing Americans and many Afghans alike.
The first peace feeler from the Taliban reached Karzai shortly before the loya jirga, Afghan officials said, and since then the insurgents and the government have exchanged a flurry of messages and contacts. Aimal Faizi, the spokesman for Karzai, acknowledged the secret contacts with the Taliban and said they were continuing. “The last two months have been very positive,” Faizi said. He characterized the contacts as among the most serious the presidential palace has had since the war began. “These parties were encouraged by the president’s stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards,” he said.