If anything positive can come out of recent moves toward “peace negotiations” between the United States and the Taliban, it is to finally relieve Afghans of whatever illusions they might still keep regarding America’s commitment to preventing Afghanistan’s re-conquest by the Taliban and their Pakistani puppeteers.
The United States had been open to negotiating with the Taliban for years, providing they renounce violence, cut ties to al-Qaeda, and agree to abide by the Afghan constitution. This was a defencible position — one that allowed for reconciliation and a path to peace, without accepting an implicit return to tyranny.
The Taliban have agreed to none of these things conditions. But U.S. President Barack Obama is no longer that interested in Afghanistan’s future. He simply wants to get America out, and hopes a peace deal will provide the cover he needs to do so.
The Taliban, for their part, set up an office in Qatar and decked it out like an embassy, with a flag and an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” sign, and prepared to humour American emissaries. They say they won’t do the same with representatives of the Afghan government, which they view as illegitimate.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai had the impertinence to be bothered by this. Apparently he took seriously all America’s proclamations about Afghan sovereignty and how any peace negotiations with the Taliban must be Afghan-led. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly managed to calm him down with a couple of phone calls.
But Kerry can also be firm with the Taliban when necessary — not over its ongoing attacks on Western troops and atrocities against Afghan civilians, mind you, but about things that really matter, like a flagpole.
America is perfectly willing to treat the Taliban as Afghanistan’s de facto leadership — discussing the country’s future with them, while bypassing Afghanistan’s government. But the United States was not happy about all the official diplomatic accoutrements the Taliban were flaunting about Doha — especially the flag.
This outrage is hard to understand. If you’re going to drop all your previous preconditions for negotiations, and do so over the objections of the Afghan government you supposedly support, you can’t be surprised if the Taliban puff their chests out a bit and act like they are a government-in-waiting, rather than a bunch of atavistic cretins with gender equality issues. To employ a crude metaphor, if you pay someone for sex, don’t protest when they call themself a prostitute.
Kerry insisted America and the Taliban had a deal that the Taliban’s Doha office would be simply a place for talks, nothing official about it. “Regrettably the agreement was not adhered to,” Kerry told the New York Times on Saturday.
No, it probably wasn’t. The Taliban, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have never adhered to a deal they’ve agreed to since sweeping into Kabul almost 20 years ago. Go on, Charlie Brown, kick the football one more time.
I do understand Washington’s frustration. America is preparing to abandon Afghan democrats, liberals, ethnic and religious minorities, and non-enslaved women to a horrendous fate. It desperately needs the mirage of a negotiated peace. And the Taliban don’t even have the good manners to play along.
Fortunately for Kerry, the Qataris stepped in and persuaded the Taliban to lower their flag to a level where it couldn’t be seen from street. “Now we need to see if we can move forward,” Kerry said. Then the Qataris got really tough and removed the flagpole altogether.
We probably can move forward. But it would be best not look back to see whether anyone in Afghanistan is following.
Mahmoud Saikal, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister, summed up the fatal flaw in the West’s quest for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban when I met him in Kabul two years ago:
“To me, a peace deal means absolutely nothing. What is needed is to make sure this country functions. It looks like we’ve put all our eggs in one basket now, looking for peace with the Taliban. And I can tell you one thing—that after a lot of effort and many, many hundreds of millions of dollars, you may reach that peace deal. But you will have lost the Afghan people.”
Sometimes I think it might be easier if we all just packed up and left Afghanistan now. The slow-motion betrayal that’s going to unfold over the next 18 months will be painful to watch.