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U.S.-Taliban Talks Hang in the Balance

Afghans fear for their future as U.S.-Taliban talks have been routed by a diplomatic row.

Last Tuesday a handful of landmark developments took place in Afghanistan, starting with the transfer of power from NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to local Afghan forces.

An announcement that the U.S. would hold direct talks with the Taliban this week in Doha made the day even more significant.

The talks were poised to be the first direct engagement between the U.S. and the insurgent group since 2001, when the international troops overthrew the Taliban-led government in Kabul.

The Taliban said in a statement, as quoted by the BBC: "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan doesn't want any threats from Afghanistan soil to other countries, and neither permits anyone to threaten other countries using Afghanistan soil. We support a political and peaceful solution that ends Afghanistan's occupation, and guarantees the Islamic system and nationwide security."

In a video interview with Al Jazeera, speaking from Washington, Afghan political analyst Nabi Misdaq said: “The Taliban [has] been fighting for over 30 years as a Mujahideen group against the [Soviet] Russians and now under their own name since 1996, and against the Americans since 2001. They also want this war to come to an end.”

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While all of this seemed to point towards hope that the situation in the war-torn country was about to change, it unraveled on Thursday when a diplomatic row over the Taliban’s new office in Doha derailed the insurgent group’s previously scheduled talks with the U.S., to be followed by direct talks with the Afghan government as well.

The row was the result of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s concern that the armed group might use the venue of the talks to mobilize funds for their activities. He further worried that direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S. could render the Afghan government irrelevant to the peace process.

Karzai initially welcomed the U.S. decision to engage the Taliban, but later backtracked saying there is a "contradiction" in America’s stance and suspended the Bilateral Security Agreement talks with it.

The main objection involved the name “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” given to the Taliban’s office in Doha. According to Karzai’s spokesperson, Aimal Faizi such a name does not exist elsewhere and Washington was made aware of Kabul’s sensitivity regarding this issue. The Taliban has since removed an objectionable sign, flag and flagpole from its Doha office. However, it is not yet certain whether this gesture will be sufficient to get talks back on track.

Before the Afghan government expressed its anger about the opening of the Qatari office, it was agreed that the talks would be dependent on the conditions that the Taliban renounces violence, breaks ties with al-Qaeda and respects the Afghan constitution – including the rights of women and minorities.

Analysts believe that Karzai’s government is facing an existential crisis, as direct talks with the Taliban without Kabul challenges the legitimacy of Karzai’s regime. The talks in turn give the insurgent group long-sought legitimacy.

“It is this international legitimization and divide-and-gain approach, very similar to how President Karzai himself engages in international diplomacy, that the Taliban obtains from participating in the negotiations,” wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at Brookings.

Felbab-Brown continued: “It is precisely this internal – within Afghanistan – and external legitimization that Karzai fears from the negotiations and is the basis on which he has objected to the Doha office and actively subverted previous negotiating efforts and starts”.

Fear of losing sovereignty that lies behind the argument that the peace process should be Afghan-led and the venue of the talks should be shifted to Kabul. While it is yet to be seen how this situation will play out, the prospect of increased engagement with the Taliban has also prompted the people of Afghanistan to express their own hopes and concerns regarding recent developments.

Al Jazeera’s Kabul correspondent, Jane Ferguson, reported last week that people in the Afghan capital are worried about the perceived increase in the role of the Taliban in running the government. Many are asking whether America has sacrificed women's rights, universal human rights and democracy for the sake of a quick withdrawal.

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However, others take a different view. Heleena Kakar, a woman rights activist based in Kabul and editor of feminist magazine Rudyard Weekly, told The Diplomat she is “happy that the Taliban is being engaged for talks. But the talks should not bypass the constitution and it is only when the rebels accept the Afghan constitution that the discussion will yield optimum outcomes for Afghan citizens.”

Kakar added that the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces represents “major progress towards self-sufficiency for Afghanistan as an independent state.”

Kabul-based journalist and political commentator Said Amir Akbari shared Kakar’s sentiment. Said told The Diplomat that “This is a proud moment for Afghans. This demonstrates the capability of the Afghan forces to neutralize the threat posed by terrorist groups.”

He continued, “Since Afghans themselves are responsible for their security the Taliban does not have any reason to attack us now in the name of foreign troops. If they attack their own soldiers they will be blamed for insecurity and chaos in the country. This will give an opportunity to the foreign troops to step in again and interfere in our country.”

An editorial published in the Afghan English daily Outlook Afghanistan suggests that “there is a crying need of having a political transition.” It continues by adding that there is also desperate need for a “reconciliation process with Taliban…the development of [a] democratic system in the government through a transparent election, establishment of good governance, preservation of the basic rights of the people of Afghanistan and eradication of corruption from the administrative institutions.”

Still, it remains to be seen if these hopes for reconciliation and self-sufficiency will come to fruition, as talks remain stalled. On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed doubts about the future of the talks. The U.S. representative who was slated to lead the talks may return to Washington early this week if no agreement is forthcoming.

“We need to see if we can get it back on track,” Kerry told reporters in Doha. “I don't know whether that's possible or not. If there is not a decision to move forward by the Taliban in short order, then we may have to consider whether or not the office has to be closed.”