Taliban Call Off Talks as Karzai Urges Faster U.S. Transition
Prospects for an orderly withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan suffered two blows on Thursday as President Hamid Karzai demanded that the United States confine troops to major bases by next year, and the Taliban announced that they were suspending peace talks with the Americans.
Getting talks started with the Taliban has been a major goal of the United States and its NATO allies for the past two years, and only in recent months was there concrete evidence of progress.
And the declaration by President Karzai, if carried out, would greatly accelerate the pace of transition from NATO to Afghan control, which previously was envisioned to be complete by 2014. Moving most troops to major bases would greatly reduce their role on the ground.
The Afghan president was reacting to widespread Afghan anger over the massacre by an American soldier of 16 civilians in Kandahar last Sunday, and the decision of the military authorities to remove him from Afghanistan. The Taliban statement, issued in English and Pashto on an insurgent web site, said talks with an American representative had commenced over the release of some Taliban members from the Guantánamo Bay prison, but accused the American representative of changing the preconditions for the talks.
It was unclear if the two developments might have been related. But both came to light just as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta had completed a tense one-day visit to Afghanistan that included talks with Mr. Karzai, and the Afghanistan president’s announcement in particular appeared to be a surprise. On Wednesday, President Obama said in Washington that the timetable for an Afghanistan withdrawal would not change.
American officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban reached by cellphone at an undisclosed location, said the statement suspending the talks was genuine but declined to discuss it further.
It was unclear what preconditions the Taliban had balked at, but the statement emphasized that the Taliban were only interested in talking with the Americans, and criticized “propaganda” about the talks that American officials had issued.
Still, American officials said in recent weeks that there had been no talks of any substance since January, when Ambassador Marc Grossman, the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his team last visited the region. Even the meetings held then did little to move the process beyond the “talks about talks” stage, and the Afghan government had not yet begun to play any significant role in the effort, despite statements from President Karzai to the contrary, the officials said.
The main obstacle appeared to be executing the first set of confidence-building measures: A prisoner swap that would transfer five senior Taliban leaders held in Guantánamo to house arrest in Qatar in exchange for a Westerner being held by the insurgents.
The plan faced a series of difficulties, notably — uncertainty about what conditions the five Taliban would be living under in Qatar, and American lawmakers on both sides of the political divide expressed deep skepticism about the release of the insurgents.
Faced with substantial political opposition, the Obama administration wanted to wait to release the men until it could get a direct exchange for the Westerner, the American officials said. But it appeared Thursday that the Taliban had grown tired of waiting for the Americans to begin the process, and that the insurgents feared the conditions under which their compatriots would be housed in Qatar would be too restrictive.
“Acknowledging their involvement in Qatar talks was a significant move for the Taliban. They expected that the U.S. would move quickly with confidence building measures,” said Michael Semple, a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “The transfer of Taliban leaders to Qatar was top on the list. The Taliban announcement of suspending engagement in Qatar is a response to their frustration at the US’s slowness to deliver.” Mr. Semple said a series of crises to beset the Americans in the Afghanistan conflict since the start of the year had added another layer of uncertainty to the talks, emboldening Taliban hardliners to press back against the peace effort. “The Taliban also believe that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is in disarray and their hardliners want to take advantage of that by launching a new fighting season.”
Still, the Taliban statement appeared to leave open the door to a resumption of the process, terming their move a “suspension.”
Angry over its exclusion from the first round of talks, which involved the Taliban opening a political office in Qatar as well as the proposed prisoner releases, President Karzai’s government has tried to establish its own track for peace talks, saying Saudi Arabia should be an intermediary, and sending its own envoy to Guantánamo to talk to Taliban prisoners.
The Taliban statement repeated previous declarations by the insurgents that they viewed Afghan government officials as puppets of the Americans and would not hold talks with them. “Hamid Karzai, who cannot even make a single political decision without the prior consent of the Americans, falsely proclaimed that the Kabul administration and the Americans have jointly started peace talks with the Taliban,” the statement said.
The Taliban were only at the stage of discussing prisoners and the Qatar office, the statement said, adding, “neither have we accepted any other condition with any other side nor have we conducted any talks with Karzai administration.”
On the withdrawal of American forces to major bases by 2013, Mr. Karzai said that Afghan authorities were capable of taking charge of security in rural areas. The massacre Sunday took place in a rural part of Panjwai District, in southern Kandahar Province.
The soldier accused of the killings was moved out of Afghanistan on Thursday, arousing widespread indignation among Afghans, who want him prosecuted in the Afghanistan courts. Contrary to usual practice, the American military has not released the identity of the alleged shooter, who has been described by sources as a 38-year-old staff sergeant in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.