What the Taliban flag debacle tells us about America's reluctance to negotiate an end to the Afghan war.
The formal opening last week of a Taliban office in Qatar has achieved the exact opposite of what it was supposed to -- delaying the start of negotiations with the United States and Afghan government, and sending the peace process into a downward spiral. Standing in front of a white banner emblazoned with the name of the past Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and next to the flag that flew during the Taliban's rule, two spokesmen for the organization held forth on its desire to improve relations with "all the countries of the world," the United Nations, and NGOs, and to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict. The spokesmen also mentioned holding talks with Afghans -- though not the Afghan government -- and said that attacks on other countries would not be allowed from Afghan soil, an indirect reference to severing links with al Qaeda.
Details such as the flag, the name, and a small plaque outside of the office labeled the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," signaled to the world that what the Taliban seek more than peace talks is a share of power in Kabul. The Taliban have presented themselves audaciously, not in the manner of a dwindling or threatened insurgent group, but as a legitimate government in exile. This thoroughly -- and justifiably -- infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who, in an attempt to re-assert control over the peace process, promptly called off negotiations with the United States over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) only hours after commemorating the official handover of security from NATO forces to the Afghan National Army (ANA). The BSA negotiations will almost certainly resume -- in no small part because the agreement ensures continued U.S. financial support for the ANA post-2014 -- but for the time being at least, Karzai is using them to prove a point.
Amazingly, it appears that the details of the Taliban's office launch that so thoroughly enraged Karzai may have been lost on the Americans. Within hours of the Taliban press conference, senior White House officials told reporters that they would be holding talks at the Doha office in a matter of days. President Barack Obama's administration, it seems, never considered that Karzai might perceive this as tacit approval of the Taliban's presentation -- in effect, marginalizing the Afghan government from its own peace process. As a result, Karzai's unexpected reaction sent Washington scrambling to walk back its commitments, with the State Department denying that talks had ever been confirmed. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed doubt over whether the talks could proceed, and said the office may need to be shut down.
The dog continues to chase his tail. Since Tuesday, the media has struggled to keep reports up to date about the status of the flagpole, which was first lowered and then removed; the whereabouts of the plaque, which was moved from outside to inside; and who is responsible for the mishap in the first place, with American officials claiming the Taliban violated a prior agreement that the Taliban says never existed.
After more than a year of talking about talks, the so-called peace process has devolved into little more than political theater, with flags and plaques providing the requisite doses of tragicomedy. But the real cost of such diversions is counted in battlefield deaths. As the process drags on, it obscures the urgent need for substantive talks aimed at ending a 12-year conflict that has claimed several thousands of innocent Afghan lives, the lives of over 3,000 coalition troops, and billions upon billions of dollars. Above all else, Afghans desperately need security -- something that can only start to be achieved through constructive peace talks between the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban.
Still, the prospects for peace remain dim. In an interview with Al Jazeera on June 19, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen clearly stated that the Taliban will continue to pursue its military campaign, even as it entertains the idea of peace talks. That same day, Taliban rockets killed four NATO soldiers at Bagram Airfield, located just north of Kabul. While the press and commentators have been quick to criticize the Taliban for this contradiction, the United States is, ironically, pursuing the exact same strategy. Earlier this week, Obama reiterated that the United States will "remain fully committed to our military efforts" and that peace talks will be pursued "in parallel with our military approach." Both sides are playing the same double game -- one that makes a mockery of the peace process and leaves Afghans dodging bullets in the crossfire.
This is not the first time that the opportunity for a more peaceful route in Afghanistan has taken a backseat to political optics. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration flatly ruled out the possibility of talks with the Taliban about handing over Osama bin Laden, despite repeated offers from Taliban officials. Instead, it opted for what it thought would be a swift and decisive defeat of the militant organization. Granted, it may have been hard to imagine the United States seriously pursuing talks with the Taliban with the shock of the September 11th attacks only barely in the rearview mirror. But now, 12 years later, it is equally hard to imagine a decisive American victory.
And now, the Taliban appear to have the upper hand entering any peace talks with the United States and Afghan government. The United States is desperate to exit the war as soon as possible, and has apparently realized peace talks are the only viable option. Karzai, meanwhile, is desperate to leave office in 2014 with a legacy that features securing some level of peace for his country. Only the Taliban are able to carry on indefinitely at little political or military cost. The organization's limited resources and manpower have not hampered its ability to inflict massive damage on its enemies in the past, and are unlikely to be a limiting factor going forward. To paraphrase Mao Zedong, guerrilla warfare is the death of a thousand cuts.
Today, Karzai's frustration at being marginalized at the negotiating table is representative of the general dearth of Afghan voices shaping the future of the country. To date, these voices have been muffled or silenced by more powerful forces concerned with matters of domestic politics, be they legacy, power, or the desire to gracefully exit a botched war with honor intact. And while no party is willing to make concessions in order to pursue meaningful and constructive peace talks, they all claim to be fully committed to the peace process. There are perhaps no winners in this war, but the undeniable losers for over a decade have been, and will continue to be, the Afghan people.
FAISAL AL-TIMIMI/AFP/Getty Images