Shortly before the State Department opened its Monday press briefing, Taliban chief Mullah Omar released a letter marking Eid al-Fitr and heralding “imminent victory” over U.S. and NATO forces. Concurrently, The Associated Press released an exclusive report detailing a collapse in negotiations between Washington and Taliban representatives. The merging flow of information painted an ugly outlook of the talks, and the State Department serves as a microcosm for all that has gone wrong in Afghanistan.
First questioned on Omar’s letter, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland concedes that she hasn’t seen “that particular report.” What Nuland can tell us - “I think you know where we’ve been on the larger issue of Taliban reconciliation” - is that high-level negotiations “need to be an Afghan-led process” and that Washington “will continue to support an Afghan-led process.”
However she must excuse us for not know where the Obama administration stands, because reality indicates the opposite position.
According to AP interviews with Afghan, U.S., Pakistani and Taliban officials, the White House’s most recent efforts to build the foundations of a political solution were terminated in June. Although talks with Tayyab Aga had only reached a preliminary stage, with each side focusing on prisoners, the relative progress led President Hamid Karzai to orchestrate a leak through “someone in the presidential palace.” Afghan officials told AP journalists that Washington had cut both Karzai and Islamabad out of the loop, expanding the trust deficit between each side.
Ultimately Karzai decided that the “secret” negotiations had become too much of a threat to his own position. A Western and Afghan official added a second reason: “Karzai's animosity toward the U.S.”
"The talks were a big deal, the real thing,” one source close to the talks told The Guardian earlier this month. “I hope people will learn the lesson on the importance of confidentiality in the early stages. People in the US are horrified about what has happened.”
Confidentially isn’t Washington's main problem though - the State Department’s claims illustrate everything wrong with these sensitive negotiations. Already an improbable task without additional friction, the entire operation appears to be running without a definitive blueprint or the necessarily regional coordination. Despite key areas of mutual interest cited by RAND, namely a desire that foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan, U.S. and Taliban leaders continue to stand across a potentially unbridgeable gulf. While the Taliban has incrementally opened itself to America’s demands - renounce al-Qaeda and accept Afghanistan's constitution - Washington refuses to even consider the Taliban’s demand for an immediate withdrawal.
A residual force scheduled for post-2014 could stay the rest of the decade, likely longer.
RAND also acknowledges that negotiations “will probably require years of talking during which fighting will continue and even intensify.” This leaves the door open for a flash settlement in 2014, but dangerously tilts Afghanistan toward an indefinite cycle of fighting. RAND simply concludes that negotiations are “the only way in which this war is likely to end,” hardly an encouraging thought.
The utter lack of coordination - and possible obstruction - between Washington, Kabul and Islamabad has further eroded the odds of a political solution. The administration was reportedly “dismayed and angered” by Karzai’s actions and U.S. officials are currently reviewing their options to reprimand him, as if this “accountability” will create any benefit. Washington desperately needs to build trust with the man installed by U.S. and European officials, but with everyone fending for themselves, each party will undermine the other through uncoordinated contacts with Taliban factions.
A member of Karzai’s High Peace Council told the AP that, “all the key players — the United States, Afghan government, Afghan National Security Council and the High Peace Council — are holding separate and secret talks with their own contacts within the insurgency.” As for the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, anti-Taliban forces are reportedly arming themselves for eventual confrontation. The two groups have vied for Afghanistan’s north and south for the last 15 years.
Facing such disarray, Omar has reason to feel confident despite the Taliban’s territorial and leadership losses over the past 12 months. A lack of progress in Afghanistan’s governance has negated the fear of true “hold and build” operations. Needing to maintain momentum during America’s surge, Omar denied progressive talks during his victory call to “the faithful.” He also boasted of the Taliban’s recent takedown of a Chinook and its 23 U.S. Special Forces operatives, saying, “With the passage of each day, the Mujahideen become…[more] familiar with the enemy tactics; they are gaining access to hardware which is instrumental in causing greater losses to the enemy. All people are now witness to the tremendous…casualties of the enemy as well as the downing of their aircraft.”
The Taliban chief is a considered rational mind within the group’s extremist ideology, and he doesn’t appear to be lying when he characterizes current negotiations as prisoner oriented. Without any promise of a swift withdrawal, Omar will not accept a political agreement that leaves a sizable number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Branding the next international conference in Bonn, Germany an “effort to distract the public and prevent Afghans from solving their own problems,” Omar downplayed the event as "superficial and hype-oriented.” In plain language, he advises Washington that “limited withdrawal of the invading forces can in, no way, solve the issue of Afghanistan.”
Instead of international conferences, “The invading forces should seek a lasting and convincing solution to the issue by immediately withdrawing their forces.”
Given these recent developments and the Taliban’s sustained fighting throughout Obama’s surge, Omar doesn’t appear to be wandering too far from the truth. “Victory” is far from “imminent,” however the Taliban’s time-frame may consider five years to be “soon.” Already obvious to Afghans, U.S. officials are begrudgingly realizing that the Taliban cannot be “defeated” on the military battlefield, nor will the group negotiate at gunpoint. This stalemate, for an insurgency, is nearly as good as victory.
Securing territory and influence through a political agreement with Washington or Kabul would merely solidify the Taliban’s gains.