In a dramatic development the day after the Taliban formally opened an office in Qatar to start talks with Washington, Afghanistan's furious president, Hamid Karzai, broke off discussions with the US on a bilateral security agreement that would govern the number and status of US troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
Karzai has steadfastly opposed direct talks between the US and the Taliban, wanting Afghan ownership of the "reconciliation process", as the reintegration of the Taliban into the mainstream is referred to. For years, an Afghan government body, the High Peace Council, has tried with limited success to engage the Taliban in dialogue. In September 2011, a Taliban suicide bomber assassinated the High Peace Council chief, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, halting the reconciliation process.
With the Taliban contemptuous of Kabul but willing to talk to Washington, Karzai today disassociated himself from that initiative. His office cites as a reason the Taliban's adoption of the symbols of state used by them when they ruled Afghanistan. The Qatar office has adopted the title of 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan', and the white flag and the national anthem the Taliban government adopted when they seized power in 1996 until they were ousted from Kabul by the Northern Alliance in 2001.
But Karzai's frustration stems more from being sidelined in the unfolding talks, where the US and a Pakistan-influenced Taliban have taken centre stage. Today, a presidential statement said: "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."
As Washington explores every option -- especially dialogue with the Taliban -- for smoothing its exit from Afghanistan, the opening of the Qatar office had come as a reprieve. The Taliban however is maintaining battlefield pressure on the US, as was evident from a rocket attack that killed four US soldiers outside Kabul yesterday, just hours after the Qatar office was opened.
After the US troop surge in 2009 failed to bring the Taliban to its knees, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said Washington was "launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, ends the insurgency, and helps to produce not only a more stable Afghanistan but a more stable region."
Washington also climbed down from many of the preconditions it had set for talks with the Taliban. Preconditions like cutting itself off from Al Qaeda and acceptance of the Afghan constitution were transformed into "outcomes". Multiple sources have reported that Pakistan was asked to persuade Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership to open dialogue, for which Islamabad was granted significant concessions, including a waiver for the supply of military equipment and aid.
This apparently was yielding results. The Qatar office was inaugurated by Taliban representatives that US officials confirmed were definitely linked with Mullah Omar, including a close associate, Mohammad Naim. However, there is little clarity about whether the ISI-linked Haqqani network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami were on board the Qatar initiative.
The office was opened symbolically on the day that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police formally took over security responsibility for the country from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As the NATO troop drawdown continues to a final figure at the end of 2014, at least 100,000 foreign combat troops, almost 70,000 of them American, will be withdrawn from Afghanistan.
New Delhi has been closely observing the Pakistan Army's growing role in bringing the Taliban to the table and Washington's quid pro quo, both in terms of military aid and apparent acceptance of a greater role in post-2014 Afghanistan. India has steadfastly backed President Karzai's position that any reconciliation process or dialogue must be "Afghan owned and Afghan led."