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06/19/2013

Sidelining Afghans in the Taliban peace talks is a bad idea

Karzai-Rasmussen2
Good bye and good luck:  Afghan president Hamid Karzai (right) with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a Kabul ceremony to hand over control for security to Afghan forces. Ahmad Massoud/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT)

No doubt there is much eye rolling in western capitals at Afghan president Hamid Karzai throwing a tantrum in public.  

Less than 24 hours after the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, to facilitate peace talks, the Afghan leader now says his government will not take part unless the Afghans are in charge. Karzai also announced he is suspending negotiations with the Americans on their military role in post-2014 Afghanistan when NATO goes home.

But the Afghan leader has some valid points.  

For one, the optics at the opening of the long delayed Doha office were telling. There was the white flag of the Taliban. A written statement from a Talib delegate repeatedly referred to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” which is what the Taliban renamed the country when they were in charge. The impression it left was of a government-in-exile, instead of an insurgency.  

Second, Karzai set up the High Peace Council, made up of Afghan leaders, to negotiate with the insurgents. But on Tuesday the White House said it will speak directly to the Taliban – who refuse to meet Afghan officials on the basis that Karzai is a puppet. (The Taliban assassinated the Tajik leader of the peace council.) The White House’s announcement may undermine the very government institutions the west has been trying to build for the last 12 years.

Thirdly, women, ethnic minorities such as the Hazaras and Tajiks, religious groups such as the Shiites are apprehensive. For the first time in Afghan history they have a shot at the top table. They can vote, run for office or open businesses. They can rise through the ranks of the military. They are genuinely worried these new freedoms will be bartered away for the sake of peace between America and the Taliban.

There are hard-headed reasons for ensuring Afghans from all sides are content with the wheeling and dealing in Doha.

The country is still awash in weapons and ammunitions. The factions from the north who helped the United States overthrow the Taliban in 2001 do not want to be on the back foot if the Taliban decide to try and seize Kabul by force.  Many are re-arming in case this worst-case scenario happens.

Since 2001 there has been much lip service paid to having Afghans in charge of their country. In reality the decisions made on the ground in terms of delivering aid, setting up institutions and fighting battles have more to do with domestic priorities of western nations than local needs. Relegating the Afghans to a sideshow in the Taliban peace talks would be yet one more example of lip service – with catastrophic results. 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan, The Sleeping Buddha. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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