Facing the Afghan obstacle course

The way forward in Afghanistan became considerably less opaque last week when the Taliban suspended Qatar-based talks with the United States, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a separate statement, requested that NATO troops pull back from rural outposts to main military bases. This marked the first time Karzai has publicly indicated that he favors ...

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

The way forward in Afghanistan became considerably less opaque last week when the Taliban suspended Qatar-based talks with the United States, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a separate statement, requested that NATO troops pull back from rural outposts to main military bases. This marked the first time Karzai has publicly indicated that he favors a handover of security to Afghan forces in 2013, a year earlier than the 2014 deadline set by NATO. 

These announcements came on the heels of the horrendous carnage last week in the southern Afghan district of Panjwai, at the hands of a man described as a deranged American soldier who left 16 villagers dead, and just days after the deeply offensive Quran burning mishap.

The way forward in Afghanistan became considerably less opaque last week when the Taliban suspended Qatar-based talks with the United States, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a separate statement, requested that NATO troops pull back from rural outposts to main military bases. This marked the first time Karzai has publicly indicated that he favors a handover of security to Afghan forces in 2013, a year earlier than the 2014 deadline set by NATO. 

These announcements came on the heels of the horrendous carnage last week in the southern Afghan district of Panjwai, at the hands of a man described as a deranged American soldier who left 16 villagers dead, and just days after the deeply offensive Quran burning mishap.

Despite U.S. apologies and two phone conversations between the U.S. and Afghan presidents in the span of one week, Afghan leaders, understandably under domestic pressure, are using atypical language to lambast the way the United States handled the two incidents. At a meeting with family members of the Panjwai victims over the weekend, President Hamid Karzai intensified a sense of crisis when he warned that he was at "the end of the rope," and in a moment of emotional pique asked that Afghans be saved from "two demons." Though he didn’t elaborate, some analysts assume he was referring to the Taliban and the United States.

Meanwhile, pundits and commentators in the U.S. foresee an unrecoverable relapse in bilateral relations, and the American public appears to feel similarly. A recent online poll shows that only a quarter of respondents support engagement till the job is completed, while half are for a speedier pullout.

Forestalling further deterioration, officials in Kabul and in Washington scrambled to downplay the turbulent relations, and refocus attention on elements of the larger picture. Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool, reported to be on a pre-arranged visit to Washington this week, is expected to make the rounds for a patch-up job. A Pentagon spokesman said the two countries shared the common goal of "moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan." He added: "We believe that we need to continue to work together because that’s an American goal as well."

Karzai’s knee-jerk demands may just be political posturing, but they would have serious operational and security implications if met. The first ramification lies in that most experts believe that Afghan forces are not yet ready to replace NATO forces across the country, particularly at a time when the insurgents are gearing up to start the spring offensive.

Second, it is inconceivable that such a decision, if implemented now, would not negatively impact command and control, coordination, counter-insurgency and self-defense factors in a country with a complex and diverse set of on-the-ground conditions and threat levels.

Since such a scenario realistically requires months of preparation and planning, it may be a non-starter. Just the act of insisting on an immediate pullback, however, could entail political cost, as it might further strain relations and weaken the trust between Kabul and Western capitals. This would again benefit the militant wing of the Taliban, transnational terrorist groups and their regional backers.

In their announcement on the suspension of talks, the Taliban did not offer any specific reason, except to say that they were presented with "unacceptable demands," describing Washington’s posture as "shaky, erratic and vague," and, once again, rejecting any talks with Kabul. U.S. efforts to secure a place at the table for Karzai’s representatives may be a thorny issue that the Taliban are not yet ready to accept.  

On the surface, the Taliban decision seems tactical, perhaps meant as a public relations exercise after the recent Quran burning and tragic Panjwai killings. While not completely shutting the door, it is designed to pressure the United States into accelerating the Guantánamo prisoner release process as part of what has been labeled a "confidence-building measure." But in effect, this dramatic decision has the potential to derail the reconciliation process for the foreseeable future, as the fighting season and targeted attacks are certainly going to be picking up again.

Unless political leaders in Afghanistan and in the largest contributing countries take a step back and refocus on the priorities of this U.N.-sanctioned mission, this week’s developments could become game-changers that seriously disrupt stabilization efforts, and alter exit-strategy planning. There is also a fragile Afghan domestic side that needs reinvigoration. The main tasks to be achieved are strengthening Afghan security forces, improving governance, adhering to rule of law and protecting fundamental democratic rights as the country undergoes a bumpy transition.

Afghans remain skeptical about a reconciliation process that stands on feeble legs. They see a lack of clarity about an end-state that endangers their gains in terms of relative stability, and basic rights and freedoms. They also see the specter of radicalism in the region emboldened by a premature U.S. retreat that leads to the re-emergence of transnational terrorist groups, which could become the net beneficiaries of a growing power vacuum.

Afghans are distressed by the untrustworthiness of some regional actors whose intentions they regard as dubious. To leverage the possibility of a Taliban takeover and the reconstitution of terrorist cells, they prefer that the international community makes official, long-term partnerships with Afghanistan.

If unforeseen events do not further tarnish relations, a slightly revised version of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement that has been in the works for months, is slated to be signed just before the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

But, as officials have indicated in recent days in Kabul, "there are still some ambiguous points that the U.S. needs to clarify." The most contentious of all is the demand by Karzai that the United States halt night-raids as a pre-condition to signing a separate "status of forces agreement" on the right to maintain military bases in the country. Only then does Kabul propose that a longer-term, comprehensive strategic partnership be signed. Encouragingly, the Obama administration is now reportedly considering the idea of giving Afghan legal and judicial authorities review rights in regard to night raids.

As reiterated over the years, the international community’s raison d’être in Afghanistan is not to occupy or stoke hostilities, but rather to fulfill a post-9/11 stabilization mission, curtail terrorism, and create the necessary space for a devastated country to once again stand on its own feet.

Achievements have come at a high cost for all sides. However, the current scenario is highly fragile and important pieces of the puzzle are still not in place. In the months ahead, every effort has to be made to prevent random incidents and grave blunders, such as the Panjwai tragedy or Quran-burning, from recurring.

Rebuilding trust and promoting mutual respect will be essential steps for the way forward, as all sides try to overcome tarnished perceptions and focus on the strategic elements that would ensure an orderly — not necessarily hasty — transition, and offer an opportunity to aim for a just and durable end to a long war.

Omar Samad is Senior Afghanistan Expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. Formerly, served as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009). He was spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry between 2001-2004.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.