- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Afghanistan’s peace process is crumbling amid distrust among all the key players - the U.S., Pakistan, the Afghan president and the Taliban, who continue to attack American and NATO troops.

The Obama administration had bolstered its attempts to end the war with the Taliban ahead of a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2014, but those efforts now appear to have become bogged down in suspicion.

Failure to reconcile the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, with the Western-backed government in Kabul could abandon the country to civil strife - like that in post-U.S.-occupied Iraq - after international forces leave the country.

“The way reconciliation is going on right now is extremely ad hoc. It is being conducted in an environment of mistrust,” said Said Jawad, who served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2003 to 2010.

“There is no mutual trust and agreed-upon base lines among Afghans and the international community, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S., and Pakistan and those elements of the Taliban that are reaching out to us or the Americans,” Mr. Jawad said.

Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, said the peace process is “in a state of confusion and disarray.”

“Diplomatic endeavors lack coordination, and the parties are on different pages with little real movement,” Mr. Samad said.

Heightened tensions

The Taliban announced in January that it would set up an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been reluctant to embrace the proposal, which is supported by the U.S. He would rather have Saudi Arabia or Turkey host the talks.

Mr. Karzai favors Saudi Arabia because it commands respect as the custodian of the Muslim holy shrines and has influence over Pakistan, which U.S. and Afghan officials accuse of sheltering the Taliban.

“Qatar is not final yet as far as we are concerned,” said an Afghan official, who, like other Afghan and Western officials interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

“We need to first agree on where the talks take place. Saudi Arabia or Turkey [is] more appropriate for negotiations with the Taliban,” the official said.

Tensions have escalated between the U.S. and Afghan governments since the Feb. 25 slayings of two U.S. military advisers inside the Interior Ministry in Kabul. The two were among six U.S. troops killed by Afghan security forces in the backlash that followed the accidental burning of Korans at a U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, raising questions about its commitment to the peace process.

On Wednesday, six British troops were killed when an explosion hit their armored vehicle in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan.

The U.S.-Pakistani relationship also is at a low point after a series of incidents, including a U.S. commando raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and a NATO attack on two border posts in November that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have accused elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence service of aiding the Taliban in northwest Pakistan, from where the militants direct attacks in Afghanistan.

Pakistani support is key to the success of the peace process, but “Pakistan-U.S. tensions have stopped Pakistan thinking about reconciliation,” said a Western official. “There is an enormous amount of mistrust all around.”

Current and former Afghan officials describe as frosty their country’s relationship with Pakistan.

“The challenge of reconciliation is that we are implementing confidence-building measures with the Taliban on the other side of the table without having enough confidence between the allies themselves on this side of the table,” Mr. Jawad said.

“And this will benefit the Taliban, because it looks like everyone is rushing to reach out and talk to the Taliban,” he added.

Prisoner transfer

Peace efforts have been further endangered by a delay in Washington to respond to a Taliban demand to transfer five of its top operatives from the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar, according to some analysts.

“These delays are strengthening the hands of opponents of reconciliation within the Taliban,” said Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

“The national security of the United States is now far better served by parking these five men in a gilded cage in Qatar, at which point real diplomacy starts, than keeping them in Cuba,” he said. “Further delay in getting the prisoners there will mean that the spring fighting season is upon us before diplomacy is given a chance.”

The Obama administration has been briefing members of Congress on the details of the transfer and has yet to reach a final decision.

Any decision to transfer the detainees would be undertaken in “full accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with Congress,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.

An Afghan delegation is expected to travel soon to Guantanamo Bay to meet with the five detainees and ascertain the conditions for their transfer. The transfer of the detainees’ families to Qatar is one of the issues.

Despite statements from U.S. officials that reconciliation should be an Afghan-led process, Afghan officials complain privately that they have not been kept in the loop on U.S. efforts to engage the Taliban.

“President Karzai has felt left out of crucial contacts, like Qatar, at least initially, and this clearly contradicts the Western line of an ‘Afghan-led’ [process], which was lip service in most of the cases anyway,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.

Afghan officials insist that the process must be Afghan-led if it is to succeed.

“Without a leading role for the government of Afghanistan, everybody understands that this process will not go anywhere,” said a second Afghan official.

Mr. Karzai’s own efforts to take the lead have been thwarted by the Taliban, which refuses to talk to what it considers a “puppet” government.

Former militants on the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, which is tasked with reconciliation, serve as a conduit to the Taliban.

“Through their personal connections, you can do things that you cannot otherwise,” said the second Afghan official.

Previous efforts to initiate talks with the Taliban have been stopped in their tracks by deceit and death.

In 2010, Western officials were duped by an impostor claiming to represent the Taliban. In September, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led the High Peace Council, was assassinated by a man who said he was a Taliban negotiator.

Afghan officials say the talks so far with the Taliban have been exploratory.

“What we have done is to make sure that we are talking to the right people, that they have access to the right chain of command,” said the second Afghan official.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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