Kabul, Afghanistan – Standing at a podium with his image emblazoned on the wall behind him, Afghan President Hamid Karzai earnestly tried to earn the world’s confidence in his government the day his military formally took over security from NATO.
With NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen standing next to him, Karzai called June 18 “a great day where the Afghan people will see their own children providing protection to their lives and to their country”.
But events that transpired before and after Tuesday’s press conference have brought the complicated web of Afghan policy to the world stage.
Hours after Karzai spoke, the world’s attention shifted to a press conference some 4,000 kilometres away, held by the other central party in the Afghan conflict, the Taliban.
The highly orchestrated event marking the opening of a much-delayed Taliban political office in Doha, Qatar was the result of year-long negotiations between Washington and representatives of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban refers to itself.
Statements made by Taliban officials Sohail Shaheen and Mullah Naeem – speaking in English and Pashto – immediately stoked the ire of the Karzai government, which also spent much of the last year trying to engage in direct talks with the group.
A day after the announcement, the Afghan government called off negotiations between Kabul and Washington on a bilateral security agreement. A statement released by the presidential palace said the suspension was in response to “the contradiction between acts and the statements made by the United States of America in regard to the Peace Process”.
“The only purpose the Taliban’s office in Doha ought to serve is as an address for holding their leaders accountable for their terror and attempts at denying ordinary Afghans a peaceful future.“
– Afghanistan 1400 group statement
This “contradiction” was most evident in the black-and-white flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that hung behind the two Taliban representatives, a move that an official involved in the negotiations told Al Jazeera came as a shock to Washington.
“Until the last minute, the White House never cleared the Taliban to hang their flag,” the official said, requesting anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the press.
Karzai had specifically raised the issue of the flag during a March meeting with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, because it leads to the perception that “there are two states within the Afghan nation”, said the official.
Another contradiction at the Taliban’s presser was a vow to continue fighting until a ceasefire is signed.
Qasim Yar is a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, the body tasked by the Karzai government to negotiate with the Taliban. He said what was said at the press conference came as a surprise.
“When they enjoy the Qataris’ assistance, financial, logistics – an office, a building, and political protection – and support of the US, and then from there they command that Afghan children be killed, women be killed, the elderly be killed … what does this mean?
“It means that their terrorist attacks are under the protection of the Qatari government and the US government,” Yar said.
Initially optimistic about Afghan representatives being dispatched to Doha, Karzai’s attitude had abruptly changed by Wednesday. “As long as the peace process is not Afghan-led, the High Peace Council will not participate in the talks in Qatar,” Karzai said.
The cessation of talks around the bilateral security agreement has further highlighted the tempestuous relationship between Afghanistan and the United States.
|Afghan President Hamid Karzai on June 18 [Reuters]|
Those familiar with the events that led to the political office’s opening framed it as a unilateral decision borne out of US frustration with the Karzai government.
Washington’s decision was relayed to Karzai during a recent phone call between the Afghan president and John Kerry, the US secretary of state.
“We can’t keep waiting for you. Your government keeps saying they’re in communication with the Taliban, but we have seen no progress,” Waheed Mozhdah, a former official in the foreign ministry of the Taliban government, quoted Kerry as saying.
Along with growing impatience towards the Afghan government, Mozhdah said Washington was compelled to talk by recent Taliban inroads with Iran and Lebanon.
A June 4 statement issued by Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed a Taliban delegation headed by the chief of the political office had embarked on a three-day visit to Tehran to make “heard the voices and demands of [the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s] people and Mujahideen”.
The presence of heavy machinery in the western province of Herat “usually found in Lebanon” further worried the US, Mozhdah told Al Jazeera.
Long wary of the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan, Mozhdah said the potential of a partnership with Iran – a country that, unlike Pakistan, the US has little leverage over. That “really frightened the United States”, he said.
Even though talks broke down last year officially, the CIA and Britain’s MI6 intelligence service have been talking unofficially to the Taliban since then.
The official involved in the negotiations said once the decision had been made by Washington to officially sanction the political office in the Qatari capital, the Taliban was given specific directives, including severing ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
At the Doha press conference, the Taliban representatives said their “independent Islamic system” in Afghanistan “will [not] allow anyone to cause a threat to the security of countries from the soil of Afghanistan”.
That statement, said the official, “was the Taliban’s way of saying they are distancing themselves from al-Qaeda, without having to say it outright”.
Further, those Taliban involved in negotiations must not return to the battlefield. “If the violence continues, there is no political gravitas,” the official said.
For the Taliban, adhering to US demands would pay dividends. “In the next few months, we will see four Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo handed over to Qatari authorities,” he said, adding that issue had led to the original breakdown of official talks last year.
The Taliban also stand to gain a security role in Afghanistan, the official said.
However, speaking to Al Jazeera after the Doha press conference, Mohammad Sohail Shaheen said without a ceasefire, “[Taliban-led] attacking will continue in parallel with the peaceful talks for peace”.
That pledge was fulfilled only hours later when the group took responsibility for rocket attacks that killed four US soldiers near Bagram Air Base, 60 kilometres north of Kabul.
Return to the past?
The Taliban has shown little interest in speaking with the Karzai government. The Doha office was conceived as “an address only to negotiate with the US”, Mozhdah said.
The refusal of the Taliban to speak to Karzai and his government is both political and personal.
|Taliban officials cut the ribbon at the official opening ceremony of a Taliban Afghanistan Political Office [EPA]|
According to Daoud Sultanzoy, a former Afghan MP, a Taliban willingness to approach a government that is seen as “void of support in this country, it will be seen as contradictory to what they say they stand for”.
On a personal level, the official involved in negotiations the Taliban hates Karzai. As a Kanadahari Pashtun working with what the Taliban see as “occupying” forces, Karzai “is seen as a traitor”, he told Al Jazeera.
Mozhdah said the Taliban were actively trying to court the Afghan political opposition, with whom they are keen to negotiate.
For many Afghans, especially young ones, any talks with the Taliban should come with caveats.
Afghanistan 1400, a group that refers to itself as “a national movement of Afghanistan’s new generation”, warned the Doha political office should not be “perceived as any openness of the people of Afghanistan, in particular our new generation, to backtracking on the hard-won achievements of the past decade”.
“The only purpose the Taliban’s office in Doha ought to serve is as an address for holding their leaders accountable for their terror and attempts at denying ordinary Afghans a peaceful future,” the group said in a statement released on Wednesday.
These statements were echoed by Pashtun Women Viewpoint, a London-based group whose members include female academics, activists, and writers.
Heelai Noor, the group’s co-founder, told Al Jazeera that by excluding the Afghan government in the Doha negotiations, Qatar and the United States were “supporting a group, which was ironically deemed a terrorist organisation by the whole world until recently, over a legally elected democratic government in Afghanistan”.
Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye