Taliban representatives have been in Qatari capital for almost a year, but negotiations seem to be going nowhere.
Doha, Qatar – When Afghan president Hamid Karzai left talks with Qatari officials in a black Mercedes, his smile may have betrayed a sense of angst with the Gulf state – the host of proposed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Taliban arrived in Qatar’s capital 18 months ago, prompting Afghanistan’s government to withdraw its ambassador.
Karzai’s recent two-day visit, which ended Sunday, was seen as an attempt to mend fences with Qatar and as another step towards possible peace talks with the Taliban.
Journalists were not allowed to attend meetings between the Qataris and the Afghans, and it is unclear exactly what was discussed. Some observers, however, believe the two countries were trying to work out a timetable for direct talks between Karzai and the Taliban.
With US troops set to leave Afghanistan in 2014, Karzai is keen to bolster his position, despite a lack of legitimacy among some Afghans due to pervasive corruption and ineptitude wracking his government. A United Nations survey published in February found that $3.9bn was paid in bribes in 2012.
The Taliban has not formally opened an office in Doha but its leaders, sources said, seem to be enjoying Qatar’s luxury accommodations and restaurants.
So far the Qatari government has spent large sums of money on perks and incentives, such as lodging, for Taliban representatives in Doha, said Wahid Monawar, former permanent representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations in Vienna.
But if the group does not show a “desire” to reach a settlement soon, Monawar said, future payments could be put in jeopardy, and the ability of the delegates – some of whom are already under a UN travel ban – to travel across borders could be hindered.
While in Doha, Taliban members have apparently been talking to Western intelligence agencies and other foreign groups, sources said – enraging Karzai, who wants to be at the centre of the process.
“Karzai wants everything to go through the High Peace Council (HPC) [a government-backed group],” Waheed Mozhdah, a former official in the foreign ministry of the Taliban government, told Al Jazeera during Karzai’s trip to Doha.
The president’s desire to be front and centre in talks could be hampering negotiations, according to an Afghan official involved in organising talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The idea that the HPC has the ability bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is mistaken,” he said.
The Karzai government, according to former Afghan MP Daoud Sultanzoy, “lacks moral legitimacy in the eyes of the people”. A peace deal in his government’s dwindling days would be an important boon for Karzai’s legacy.
Road through Islamabad
But for the Taliban, who saw themselves as a legitimate government attacked by US-backed forces in 2001, discussions with the Karzai government could hurt them on the grounds on which they say their resistance is based. Sultanzoy said the talks could “signal an acceptance by the Taliban of elements that go against all their rhetoric”.
An acknowledgement of the Karzai government would be especially detrimental to the image of a Taliban that Mozhdah said believe the West and its “puppet regime” have been “broken in the decade-long war”.
Taliban fighters are in no hurry to talk, as they believe time is on their side in the drawn-out counter-insurgency battle. For Karzai, however, presidential elections scheduled just months after the international troop withdrawal planned for December 2014 means time is of the essence.
“Karzai’s biggest enemy right now is time,” Monawar told Al Jazeera. “Time is not on his side, whether he likes it or not.”
Time is less important for the Taliban. “Part of the agreement between the Qataris and the Taliban was that they would not be kicked out [of Qatar], even if nothing comes from discussions [with Karzai’s government],” said Mozhdah.
Despite wrangling in Qatar, many Afghans believe the road to a long-term peace runs through Islamabad. “The Taliban are being manuevered by the Pakistani side,” said Sultanzoy. “Most of the Arab nations are friendly to the Pakistani regime.”
For many in Afghanistan, Karzai’s talks in the Gulf or the Taliban’s forays in London, Berlin or Paris are of little value until Islamabad is properly addressed.
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye