Afghan President Hamid Karzai attends the opening session of the parliament… (Shah Marai, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —
On the face of it, President Hamid Karzai has every motive to do all he can to bring about talks with the Taliban. Instead, the Afghan leader is emerging as a prime impediment to urgent U.S. efforts to jump-start negotiations with the insurgents.
Since the start of his second term in office, Karzai has repeatedly declared that his top priority is finding a political settlement to the bloody Afghan conflict and bringing the "disaffected brothers" back into the social and political fold.
Karzai's self-interest is at stake. NATO's military clock is ticking down, accelerated by the United States' recently announced push to wind down its combat role next year. And without Western backing, the Afghan leader is well aware that his own survival — political, and perhaps literal — could be in doubt.
Yet Karzai has repeatedly tried to thwart the most focused American effort yet to bring the insurgents to the bargaining table, launching a series of actions that appear to be almost deliberate provocations aimed at the United States, diplomats, analysts and observers say.
Before the Taliban movement last month announced its intention to open an office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to facilitate an "understanding" with the U.S.-led coalition, Karzai had worked assiduously behind the scenes to scuttle any such contacts. He loudly objected to the prospective locale, and recalledAfghanistan's ambassador to Qatar, complaining that his administration had been left out of the loop in key discussions.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Karzai grudgingly agreed to the Qatar arrangement. But within weeks, presidential aides disclosed that the Afghan leader was seeking to set up parallel meetings with the insurgents, in Saudi Arabia. The Taliban issued an unusually specific denial that it intended to talk in Saudi Arabia with the Karzai government, which it routinely mocks as a "puppet regime."
Last week, Karzai enlisted the support of visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who declared at a news conference that Pakistan would support an Afghan-led peace process, an implicit warning against too much U.S. control over the direction of the prospective talks in Qatar.
The moves leave the United States and its allies in the awkward position of publicly proclaiming that any peace process must be "Afghan-owned" and "Afghan-led," even as the Karzai administration is dismissed by the Taliban as irrelevant and continues to be a problematic partner to the West.
Many observers see the Afghan leader's role as a potential spoiler as far outweighing any other influence he wields.
"I think President Karzai is completely cut off from the process," said Haroun Mir, an analyst at the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.
Part of the president's aggrieved stance regarding contacts in Qatar can be traced to the spectacular failure of more than a year of high-profile efforts on his own part to open a channel to the insurgents.
In 2010, Karzai set up a body known as the High Peace Council and declared it the clearinghouse for any contacts with the Taliban. In September last year, an assassin posing as a Taliban peace envoy killed the council's head, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, with a bomb hidden in his turban.
In the wake of that debacle, Karzai found himself under fire from political rivals who had all along objected to any rapprochement with the insurgents, particularly stalwarts of the staunchly anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, dominated by ethnic Tajiks.
Even while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force tries to present at least the appearance of unity among the Afghan government and its Western allies, the mercurial president tends to react sharply to any perceived heavy-handedness on the part of the U.S.-led coalition, particularly when actions by the NATO force result in Afghan deaths.
The United Nations said Saturday that civilian deaths last year hit a record high for the 10-year war. Although most of the fatalities were blamed on insurgents, Karzai has repeatedly said the Western military must be held to a higher standard.
The president does not hesitate to push back against his Western patrons. Late last year, Karzai publicly laid down seemingly untenable conditions for a long-term American presence in Afghanistan, including an end to the U.S.-led nighttime raids that have decimated the Taliban field command structure, and a demand that American troops be subject to Afghan law in the event of alleged wrongdoing, a deal-breaker in efforts to strike a similar accord in Iraq.
Last month, the president railed against foreign efforts to turn Afghanistan into a laboratory for what he called "political experimentation," while some of his aides sought to stoke fear that the West might agree to an effective partitioning of the country to placate the Taliban. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was forced to deny the existence of any such plan.