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19 Jun, 2013 08:07

Afghanistan suspends US security negotiations as Washington readies Taliban peace talks

Afghanistan suspends US security negotiations as Washington readies Taliban peace talks

Kabul has suspended talks with Washington on a bilateral security pact - designed to chart Afghanistan's security path following the US withdrawal next year - as well as upcoming discussions with the Taliban.

With the US prepared to draw down its troop presence in Afghanistan next year, and the Taliban seemingly determined to make the exit as unpleasant and unpredictable as possible, Washington and Kabul have been working since November on a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). But now that initiative is at risk of being abandoned.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has emphasized in the past his desire to hold one-on-one talks with the Taliban. However, those hopes were dashed when US and Taliban officials announced they would begin joint talks - beginning as early as this week - apparently before the Afghan government was consulted on the issue. This provoked a strong response from the Afghan leader.

"In a special meeting chaired by President Hamid Karzai, the president has decided to suspend talks about a security pact with the US because of their inconsistent statements and actions in regard to the peace process," Karzai spokesperson Aimal Faizi told Reuters. 

At the same time, the Afghan leader said his country will not participate in the upcoming Qatar talks with the Taliban. 

"As long as the peace process is not Afghan-led, the High Peace Council will not participate in the talks in Qatar," Karzai said in a statement, referring to a government body he created in 2010 to seek a negotiated peace with the Taliban.

A senior Afghan official told Reuters the government was dissatisfied over the official status being given to the Taliban, who opened an office in Doha on Tuesday.

Afghan security personnel keep watch at the site of a suicide attack in Panjshir province (Reuters / Mohammad Ishaq)

Meanwhile, there has even been disagreement over the name tentatively chosen for Afghanistan, which apparently does not sit well with the Afghan president.

"The president is not happy with the name of the office. We oppose the title the 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' because such a thing doesn't exist," Faizi said. "The US was aware of the president's stance." 

US Secretary of State John Kerry personally called Karzai to reassure that the offending sign will be taken down, and salvage the chance for talks.

The Afghan-US standoff hints at political intrigue between Kabul and Washington, as both sides are attempting to exert some semblance of control before next year’s US troop withdrawal commences.

Is the Taliban a reliable partner?

US officials said the American and Taliban representatives will hold bilateral meetings in the coming days. But is this plan realistic or just wishful thinking?

Washington intends to sit down at the negotiating table with the Taliban Political Commission, a largely unknown group authorized by the Taliban’s one-eyed leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the same individual who Washington put on a wanted list for harboring Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda militants prior to the September 11 attacks.

US officials said they had no additional information on the identities of the other members of the commission, but “it apparently includes or represents armed insurgent groups that include the Pakistani-based Haqqani network, which has carried out some of the most ambitious attacks on international forces in eastern Afghanistan and in Kabul, the Afghan capital,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

President Barack Obama acknowledged problems ahead for Washington as the US troop withdrawal looms.

Afghan mourners pray at the grave of a victim of a Taliban suicide attack in Farah province, April 4, 2013 (Reuters / Stringer)

"This is an important first step toward reconciliation, although it is a very early step," Obama said as he concluded meetings in Northern Ireland with leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations. "We anticipate that there will be a lot of bumps in the road."

As soon as the US leader finished his speech, the "bumps" immediately became apparent as four US troops were killed in a well coordinated attack by the insurgent group. Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said Wednesday that the militants launched two rockets into Bagram Air Base late Tuesday, AP reported. US officials confirmed the military base had come under attack by indirect fire, and that four US troops were killed.

Karzai's High Peace Council had been expected to also hold its own discussions with the Taliban a few days later, but the fate of those talks is now uncertain.

The Taliban announcement that it would hold bilateral talks with US officials came as Afghan forces formally assumed control on Tuesday from the US-led NATO coalition for security in Afghanistan. US and NATO military forces will now move into a support role.

The handover marks the latest step in the withdrawal of coalition forces, which currently number around 100,000 troops from 48 countries, including 66,000 US soldiers.

This NATO-led force will be halved by the end of the year, and by the end of 2014 all troops are to leave and be replaced by a smaller force devoted to training and advising the Afghan forces. 

Despite their differences, Kabul and Washington do seem to agree on one point.

Obama said on Wednesday he welcomed Karzai's statement that Afghanistan would soon take responsibility for security from the U.S.-led NATO peacekeeping force.

"We do think that ultimately we're going to need to see Afghans talking to Afghans about how they can move forward and end the cycle of violence there so they can start actually building their country," the US leader said.

The United States has lost 2,235 soldiers in the 12-year war. And Afghanistan is more unstable than it has ever been, Dr Conn Hallinan, a columnist at the online journal Foreign Policy in Focus, told RT.

“There is a war going on and we haven’t declared a ceasefire,” Hallinan said. “And if we are not going to declare ceasefire, why should the Taliban declare a ceasefire?”

“The United State has lost this war,” Hallinan added. “This is an unmitigated disaster. And essentially what the United States is trying to do is to stop the haemorrhaging but at the same time still maintain some kind of presence in Afghanistan. Whether the Taliban will allow that – that’s not clear.”