Taliban peace talks 'at risk' as Obama stalls on Guantánamo
The White House blames Hamid Karzai for holding up progress towards peace talks
The Obama administration is in danger of missing a historic opportunity for a peace settlement in Afghanistan if it does not act quickly to release prisoners in response to a Taliban offer to open talks, say European officials.
However, US officials said the hold-up in peace talks is at the insistence of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who was concerned that the process was being taken out of his hands and needed to shore up support for negotiations among his own supporters.
The US envoy, Marc Grossman, is due in Afghanistan this week for talks with President Karzai aimed at restarting the peace process.
Grossman is also expected to visit Qatar, where the Taliban have said they will open a political office for the purpose of holding peace talks with the international community. The insurgents have also said they expect the release of their officials being held at Guantánamo Bay. The US had provisionally agreed late last year to transfer five Taliban officials to custody in Qatar as part of a string of confidence-building measures, but Karzai objected, saying all releases should come through Afghanistan, and Congress passed a law in December extending a ban on transfers from Guantánamo.
European officials involved in the talks are urging Washington to act quickly to keep the momentum going before hardline spoilers on all sides can stall proceedings.
"We think Washington can rely on the Qatar authorities as far as this is concerned," a senior European official said. "We know there is a political risk involved in the middle of [US presidential] elections, but we also believe the earlier they do this the less the political risk, because by November it will be in the distant past."
Several diplomats stressed that the Taliban offer to enter talks was a historic step, representing a dramatic change in policy, and that for the first time since the war began all the parties were lined up behind official support for negotiations, but that such alignment might not last very long.
Some speculated that the Obama administration had been rattled by Republican attacks on the president's national security credentials. What was needed now, one diplomat said, was "political courage".
However, American officials insist that US politics were not the obstacle but rather the fraught dynamics of the tenuous Afghan coalition of forces that keeps Karzai in power.
"Around the Bonn conference, President Karzai asked us to pause talks. It was important for him that this remain an Afghan-led process and to go home to Kabul and do some domestic work with his people. Reconciliation is, after all, still controversial in Afghanistan," a US official said.
"We have not talked with the Taliban since Bonn, but ambassador Grossman is travelling to Kabul to talk to President Karzai about the next steps forward. We are not talking about the future of Afghanistan with the Taliban; that is for Afghans to discuss with Afghans."
Referring indirectly to prisoner transfers, the official said: "What we are discussing is a series of confidence-building measures that can help parties get back to the table. When we paused our discussions, we were talking about how to best sequence confidence-building measures to ensure both parties could come to the table understanding the other had seriousness of purpose."
Michael Semple, a former EU envoy to Afghanistan, who is in close contact with senior Taliban members, urged faster progress. He said: "It's an open question whether the Americans appreciate how momentous a step this was for the Taliban. It is serious and it is profound. It's completely game-changing."
"It is US policy to engage. But the people you've asked to engage are risking their lives, and they need help and they need credibility with their own people. If you invite everybody to the party and don't show up yourselves, my God you look stupid."
Semple added that if both sides promptly implemented confidence-building measures such as prisoner transfers, "it is realistic to think there could be a ceasefire in 2012".
"Do they [the Obama administration] realise that they could actually stop the fighting in Afghanistan this year?" he asked.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Administration officials have previously pointed to the constraints of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), when it came to prisoner releases. Under the act, passed by Congress in December, transfers from Guantánamo are banned unless the defence secretary certifies that those let out of the detention camp will not commit acts of terrorism or rejoin the fight.
Other European officials are not as confident as Semple that the talks could lead to a cessation of hostilities, pointing to wide differences between the parties. The Taliban insist on the complete removal of foreign troops, while the US and the Kabul government are negotiating a "strategic partnership" agreement that would establish long-term US bases in Afghanistan. Kabul and its western backers also insist that Afghanistan's present constitution, including women's rights, should be accepted as part of the agreement, while the Taliban argue some of the constitution conflicts with Islam.
Some European officials also believe that the Taliban might view the Qatar office as a form of diplomatic recognition as a government in exile, which is not the intention of the initiative from the point of view of western capitals. The Taliban are also insisting they will not negotiate with the government of Hamid Karzai, while the US and its allies maintain that the peace process must be "Afghan-led".
European capitals argued that such gaps can be finessed or fudged in the early stages of talks at least, and are urging Washington to call the Taliban's bluff and respond to its overture, if only to demonstrate that the west is exploring every avenue to a peaceful settlement.
A former member of the US administration who was involved in the preliminary talks said that since the death last year of the former American envoy, Richard Holbrooke, the logjam created by the competing views of the state department, Pentagon and CIA had got worse, making it harder for Washington to react quickly to events.
"Since Holbrooke died, we don't have anyone managing the relationship with Pakistan for example," the former official said. "We no longer have an overall strategist."