The breakdown in both the bilateral security agreement talks between the Afghan government and the United States and the peace talks with the Taliban were far from unexpected. The issues of sovereignty and power remain central to both Afghan and Taliban concerns. While the primarily American concern is the war, and its ending, the main Afghan and Taliban worry looks toward the peace.
Nominally, it started on Wednesday with the raising of a Taliban flag — black lettering on a white banner — and the revealing of a name plate reading “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in Doha, Qatar. Though the opening of a physical Taliban office was heralded by many as a progressive step toward reconciliation, it was also at the heart of the breakdown.
The opening and use of a Taliban office provides the perception of political legitimacy, and therefore legitimate competition, which the unsteady administration of President Hamid Karzai can ill afford.
In addition, continued American steering of the peace process illustrated time and again the lack of confidence in the staying power of the Afghan republic.
The Afghan National Security Council commented on halting the security talks: “there is a contradiction between what the American government says and what it does regarding Afghan peace talks.”
The Afghan government would rather the United States remain concerned with fringe issues, such as prisoner exchanges, and out of the broader negotiations. Although President Barack Obama has said that only Afghans can decided whether the peace and reconciliation process can start, the Americans repeatedly involved themselves in the process, highlighting a lack of confidence in the Afghan republic.
The underlying current and unstated narrative is that both the Taliban and the United States expect to be around as 2014 closes and Western troops depart by the thousands whereas President Karzai will no longer be in office. Afghan elections scheduled for the first week of April 2014 will be the true test of whether a stable peace can be achieved.
The Taliban continue to operate as if the main barrier to their political control of Afghanistan is the United States. However untrue this assumption may be, it drives the group to sideline the government in Kabul, at least in public. Until the Taliban can be convinced that the Afghan government will endure beyond the end of Karzai’s presidency, they will continue to function as a competing authority rather than a piece of the Afghan political quilt.
It is as important for there to be a legitimate transfer of presidential power in 2014 as it is for President Karzai to establish the individual sovereignty of the government of Afghanistan now. His comments against the United States are not for an American audience. He remains concerned primarily with the stability of his own regime and perhaps the lasting stability of Afghanistan.