Taliban suspend talks with the US amid Afghan turmoil

Taliban leaders announced today they are halting negotiations with the US, dealing another setback to the US strategy in Afghanistan. 

Allauddin Khan/AP
Afghan villagers pray during a prayer ceremony for the victims of Sunday's killing of civilians by a US soldier in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. Taliban militants opened fire Tuesday on a delegation of senior Afghan officials including two of President Hamid Karzai's brothers visiting villages in southern Afghanistan.

The Taliban has abruptly suspended plans to pursue negotiations with the American and Afghan governments, upending a key part of the US strategy in Afghanistan.

In an official statement on Thursday the group said it was putting on hold plans to open an office in Qatar to facilitate dialogue with the US.

The announcement comes as US and international officials work to mitigate fallout from an American soldier who allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday and the burning of Qurans on a US military base last month that led to a week of violent protests. Both incidents have left many Afghans roiling, adding to frustration with America.

Amid this turmoil, President Hamid Karzai on Thursday also called for the removal of American bases in Afghan villages, a call unlikely to be heeded given the importance of the bases to US military strategy here. 

Though the timing of the Taliban's announcement seems designed to capitalize on the recent US setbacks, a number of Afghan analysts say the Taliban's decision to freeze plans for an office is likely the result of long-term frustrations with the negotiation process.

Providing the group with an address and a safe channel for talks was seen by many Western officials as key to negotiating with the group. US and international officials have long considered talks as one of their best hopes for ending the decade-long war in Afghanistan.

What the Taliban says

In an official statement posted on the group’s website, the Taliban said it suspended dialogue with the Americans because the organization felt the US had not honored the conditions agreed upon for the office. It also criticized the government of President Hamid Karzai for acting only with “prior consent of the Americans” and falsely saying it was engaged with talks with the group.

“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,” wrote the group in a statement.

Though the group made no mention of the shooting or Quran burnings in its statement, the timing seems more than coincidental to many observers.

In the wake of the shooting the group has taken an outspoken role, vowing to avenge those killed by the rogue American soldier and saying it would begin beheading US soldiers. Their pledges have been welcomed by many of those in the area where the shooting occurred, with some locals saying they feel the Taliban has done more for them since the shooting than the Afghan government.

Taliban, more politically savvy

Still, a number of Afghan analysts say the Taliban’s decision about the office is much more likely based on frustration with the stipulations for the office than recent events. Chief among the reasons listed in the Taliban's statement, the group said the US had not honored a Taliban request for a prisoner swap and overstated the progress and nature of the talks.

“I don’t think the peace process will come under the shadow of this [US soldier's shooting spree], but I’m absolutely sure that politically and militarily the Taliban will use this case for their own benefit. They will try to gain more influence among the people,” says Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, director of Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan.

Over the course of the past 10 years, the Taliban has grown more sophisticated in its political strategy than many give it credit for, argues Barry Salaam, an independent analyst and civil society activist in Kabul.

“The kinds of decisions that they are making are not based on emotions. In so many ways they’re more strategically well-placed than the Afghans and the Americans. They make decisions on a daily basis based on the very real facts on the ground and they change their tactics based on the very real facts on the ground,” says Barry Salaam, an independent analyst and civil society activist in Kabul.

During the past year the peace process has seen a number of blows and embarrassments, including the assassination of the head of the high peace council and negotiations with a Taliban impostor. The US has pressed on despite these past setbacks. It's not clear yet if this latest blow will prove insurmountable. 

The Taliban statement phrased their decision as a suspension "until the Americans clarify their stances on the issues concerned and until they show willingness in carrying out their promises instead of wasting time."

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