Yesterday it was reports of Pakistan making demands of U.S. forces fighting militants, today it’s Afghanistan. In a further blow to faltering efforts to stabilize the country, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked the United States to confine troop activities to U.S. bases, and to pull them back from combat outposts.
The same day, the Taliban announced that it was halting preliminary talks with the United States over its “alternating and ever-changing position,” the Washington Post reports.
Karzai’s announcement is likely a response to the shooting rampage allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier at the weekend that claimed 16 lives, including several children. The killings were condemned in the strongest terms by Karzai, who said they were “unforgiveable.”
“The Afghan government had in the past strongly condemned civilian casualties that caused during the military operations by international forces that was called war on terrorism,” a statement released by his office said. “But when a U.S. soldier intentionally kills innocent people, it could be described as an act of terror, which cannot be forgiven.”
On Monday, the Afghan parliament said: “[O]nce again Afghans have run out of patience with the arbitrary actions of foreign forces.”
The Taliban for its part released a statement bringing a halt to initial talks with the U.S. that it claimed had included discussion of prisoner swaps.
“We must categorically state that the real source of obstacle in talks was the shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans; therefore all the responsibility for the halt also falls on their shoulders,” the group said.
“The Americans initially agreed upon taking practical steps regarding the exchange of prisoners and to not oppose our political office, but with the passage of time, they turned their backs on their promises and started initiating baseless propaganda portraying the envoys of the Islamic Emirate as having commenced multilateral negotiations for solving the Afghan dilemma,” they added.
Still, Thomas Barfield, director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilization and president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies, suggests that even successful talks with the Taliban wouldn’t have guaranteed stability. “I don’t think the Taliban are capable of bringing stability to Afghanistan although they can keep it unstable,” he told me.
A related question is how capable the Karzai administration, widely perceived as inefficient and corrupt, is of providing stability. Kabul has often been seen as a (relative) oasis of stability, but I asked Barfield whether this was down to the failure of the Karzai regime specifically, or whether any government would find it difficult to rule from the center.
“In the aftermath of war, Kabul has always been weak, but Afghan previous governments have usually found ways to increase their reach over time,” he said. “One dilemma of having foreign forces in the country is that the Kabul government sees itself as more powerful than it really is, and often fails to build a stronger domestic base of authority. The structure of the Karzai government is also highly centralized, so defects from the center radiate outward.”
So, is there a way forward? “Perhaps more devolution of power to regions or the parliament would have better linked the central government to the regions, particularly in rural areas,” Barfield suggested. “For example, a weak government established in the wake of the 1929 civil war consolidated its power slowly and brought 50 years of peace to the country.”