As Karzai blusters over Taliban, more trouble in Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended talks with the US over a new Status of Forces Agreement, furious that the US is trying to join peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a press conference during a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, June 18. Karzai suspended talks with the US over a new Status of Forces Agreement, furious that America might be involved in peace talks with a Taliban in Qatar.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai continued his traditional disdain for the US today, furious that America might be involved in peace talks with a Taliban office being set up in the Gulf emirate of Qatar and suspending negotiations on an extended US combat presence in the country.

A day after the US praised the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar and said it wanted to facilitate talks between both sides, Mr. Karzai's government said it would not participate in peace talks with the Taliban there. It also said it was suspending long-stalled negotiations with the US over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow for the extended presence of US troops inside the country. 

Karzai continues to gamble that the US can be bent to his will in a high stakes game of chicken, counting on President Barack Obama to make compromises in his favor for fear of being seen as the president who "lost" Afghanistan. But whatever happens over the SOFA, or whether talks with the Taliban start in Qatar or not, they are not likely to mitigate the looming storm-clouds over the troubled country.

In a statement, Karzai rejected any US mediation role with the Taliban and insisted that talks take place inside Afghanistan. But the Taliban office in Qatar – a country that uses its oil and gas wealth to support Sunni Islamist causes around the world – had been in the works for 18 months. Inasmuch as the US has an exit strategy designed to prevent a hot civil war erupting again in Afghanistan, like the one that broke out after the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, this is it. 

To be sure, the notion is now far-fetched of any negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Karzai, who is term-limited out of office next year at the same time America is scheduled to withdraw the last of its combat troops. US and other NATO forces are more capable than the Afghan National Army, and the Taliban is looking forward to more favorable fighting terrain. Make concessions now? Why would they? 

And while the latest Karzai eruption has officials at the US Embassy in Kabul and in Foggy Bottom holding their heads yet again (Karzai has this year alone accused the US of conspiring with the Taliban to conduct suicide attacks and carrying out war crimes against Afghan civilians), there are more important signs of the challenges facing Afghanistan this week.

Exhibit A is the outbreak of fighting in Jowzjan Province this week, in which forces loyal to Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum – a key member of the Northern Alliance that worked with the US to drive the Taliban from power in 2001 – attacked the office and home of governor and Karzai appointee Mohammad Alem Sayee in the provincial capital of Sheberghan.

Mr. Dostum is an ethnic-Uzbek and a major player in Afghanistan's civil war, repeatedly accused of war crimes like the massacre of prisoners during that conflict. His militia was also accused of atrocities in post-Taliban Afghanistan, too – like the murder of thousands of Taliban prisoners being transported to Sheberghan in 2002, one reason he was in exile on the eve of Karzai's fraud-tainted reelection in 2009. But in a deal with Karzai, Dostum was allowed to return home before the election, and his militia insured the votes went his way in Jowzjan and other areas in the Uzbek north. In return, Dostum was named chairman of the Afghan armed forces joint chiefs of staff.

But alliances in Afghan politics and war have always been fluid and ephemeral, and with Karzai looking like a lame-duck, the vast amounts of foreign military and aid spending that have enriched Dostum and so many others drying up, and a new reality looming, it appears that Dostum is flexing his muscles. Governor Sayee alleges that Dostum has lately been distributing fresh weapons to his forces and has asked the Karzai government to take legal steps against Dostum.

That's not likely to happen. For a decade now, warlords like Dostum have been the "good guys" in the US strategic equation, but they're no more likely to play nice in a post-occupation country than the Taliban will.

The so-called Afghan surge engineered by Gen. David Petraeus ended in 2012 without accomplishing its objectives of setting the stage for political reconciliation and strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The country's electoral politics have been driven by vote buying, ballot stuffing, and intimidation, and former US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was describing Karzai himself as an "inadequate strategic partner" as long ago as 2009.

But, well, you don't go to war with the strategic partner you wished you had. And that's the ultimate concern as Afghanistan lurches towards its next transition.

Karzai is on the way out, a longer-term US troop presence remains an open question, and would-be kingmakers like General Dostum are waiting in the wings.

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