Last updated: June 19, 2013 4:57 pm

Karzai withdrawal from Afghan peace talks leaves tough road ahead

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Karzai to boycott proposed Taliban talks in Qatar©EPA

The latest effort to revive Afghanistan peace talks met an obstacle on Wednesday when the Afghan government said it would no longer meet the Taliban and suspended separate talks with the US about future military co-operation.

Apparently co-ordinated announcements on Tuesday by the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban had seemed to pave the way for the first talks between the antagonists in the Afghan war, raising the prospect of a political reconciliation before the Nato mission ends next year.

However, the complexity of launching those talks was underlined within the space of a day when Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, said his representatives would not attend the talks, which are to be held in Qatar.

In a statement released by his office, Mr Karzai objected to the high-profile way the Taliban had been allowed to open an office in Qatar on Tuesday, which he said “was in absolute contrast with all the guarantees that the United States of America had pledged”.

The statement added: “Recent developments showed that there are foreign hands behind the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar. Unless the peace process is led by Afghans, the High Peace Council will not participate in the Qatar negotiations.” The High Peace Council is a body established by Mr Karzai during previous efforts at peace talks.

When the Taliban opened its office in Qatar, officials erected a banner for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was the name they used for the country when they were in power before 2001 – a suggestion that they see themselves as the legitimate government.

The US has been working for several years to engineer peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban after its military commanders concluded that they would not be able to win a decisive military victory against the Taliban.

Speaking on Tuesday, US officials said the talks between Taliban representatives and the US would begin later this week with the more important talks between the Taliban and the High Peace Council starting “days later”. However, on Wednesday the State Department said that no meetings had yet been scheduled with the Taliban. The push by Washington to begin the reconciliation process has been given fresh urgency by the fact that most US troops are due to leave the country next year.

Although Mr Karzai said on Wednesday that the government representatives would no longer attend the Qatar talks, he raised the prospect that talks could take place in Kabul.

Speaking at a press conference in Berlin, President Barack Obama said “there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground”. However, he added: “We do think ultimately we’re going to need to see Afghans talking to Afghans about how they can move forward and end the cycle of violence.”

While Mr Karzai is often accused in Washington for quixotic behaviour, the latest stumbling block reflects the very real uncertainties about the Taliban’s motivations for entering talks.

Given the rapid build-up in the Afghan security forces, the Taliban might have concluded that they too cannot win a victory on the battlefield. Analysts say that more moderate sections of the Taliban are keen for talks to take place because they fear a descent into a civil war once international forces leave the country.

However, the talks also give the Taliban a platform to increase their legitimacy. “What it changes is the public face of the Taliban,” says Martine van Bijlert, a director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think-tank. “They are no longer a clandestine movement that people have to go through all kinds of channels to find them in a backwater. There is now a swishy office.”

The symbolism of the Taliban’s office-opening ceremony, which included the presence of Qatar’s deputy foreign minister, appeared designed to try to put the Taliban on the same level as the government or as a parallel government. “Karzai feels tricked by the US and is not really pleased with how this played out,” says Ms Van Bijlert.

While the Obama administration wants to present the process as Afghans talking to Afghans, the Taliban itself prefers direct talks with the US over talks with Mr Karzai, whose government it considers a creature of American influence.

“The Taliban want to talk to the Americans because they see Karzai as a stooge,” says Graeme Smith, a senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group. “It’s a tug-of-war over who is going to control these talks with the Taliban.”

Mr Karzai also suspended talks with the US about a long-term military presence in the country after the end of Nato operations next year. John Allen, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said last month that, because of the country’s “historical fear of abandonment”, the US needs to clarify soon what sort of force it will leave “to help Afghans feel more confident about the future”.

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