United States President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought to portray a united front on the issue of a political settlement with the Taliban in their joint press conference on Wednesday (May 12, 2010). But their comments underlined the deep rift that divides Karzai and Obama over the issue.
Karzai obtained Obama's approval for a peace jirga (council) scheduled for later this month - an event the Obama administration had earlier regarded with grave doubt because of Karzai's apparent invitation to the Taliban to participate. On the broader question of reconciliation, however, Obama wasclearly warning Karzai not to pursue direct talks with the Taliban leadership, at least until well into 2011.
Karzai played down the Taliban role in a peace jirga, saying that it was the "thousands of Taliban who are not against Afghanistan, or against the Afghan people ... who are not against America either ..." who would be addressed at the conference. But he also acknowledged that the jirga would discuss how to approach at least some in the Taliban leadership about peace talks.
Karzai said, "Those within the Taliban leadership structure who, again, are not part of al-Qaeda or the terrorist networks, or ideologically against Afghanistan' s progress and rights and constitution, democracy, the place of women in the Afghan society, the progress that they've made ... are welcome."
The "peace consultative jirga", he said, would be "consulting the Afghan people, taking their advice on how and through which means and which speed should the Afghan government proceed in the quest for peace".
Karzai thus made it clear that he would be taking his cues on peace talks with the Taliban from popular sentiment rather than from Washington. That could not have been a welcome message to the Obama administration, given Karzai's well-known pattern of catering to views of the Pashtun population, which overwhelmingly favor peace talks with the Taliban.
Obama endorsed the peace jirga, but he limited US support to "reintegration of those [Taliban] individuals into Afghan society". Obama pointedly referred to what had evidently been a contentious issue in their private meeting - his insistence that moves toward reconciliation with the Taliban should not go forward until after the US military has carried out General Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency plan for southern Afghanistan.
Obama (Left) and Karzai (Right) engaged in talks
"One of the things I emphasized to President Karzai," said Obama, adding "however", to indicate that it was a matter of disagreement, "is that the incentives for the Taliban to lay down arms, or at least portions of the Taliban to lay down arms, and make peace with the Afghan government in part depends on our effectiveness in breaking their momentum militarily." Obama asserted that "the timing" of the reconciliation process was linked to US military success, because that success would determine when the Taliban "start making different calculations about what's in their interests".
Neither Obama nor Karzai gave any hint that the Afghan President had agreed with that point. Karzai openly sided with tribal elders in Kandahar who were vocally opposed to the US military occupation of Kandahar city and surrounding districts at a largeshura (meeting) on April 4.
An administration official who is familiar with the Obama-Karzai meeting confirmed to Inter Press Service (IPS) on Thursday that the differences between the two over the issue of peace talks remained, but that the administration regarded it as positive that Karzai was at least consulting with Obama on his thinking. Before the Karzai-Obama meeting, the official said, "A lot of people were jumping to the conclusion that [Karzai and the Taliban] are talking about deals. Now he is talking to us before making any back-room deals."
The official indicated that the Obama administration was not open to the suggestion embraced by Karzai that reconciliation might be pursued with some of the Taliban leadership. "We'd have a lot of problems with someone saying 'these Taliban are acceptable, but these people aren't'," the official told IPS.
Obama's forceful opposition to any political approach to any Taliban leadership until after the counter-insurgency strategy has been tried appears to represent a policy that has been hammered out within the administration at the insistence of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and McChrystal, the commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Obama had suggested in a White House meeting on March 12 that it might be time to initiate talks with the Taliban, the New York Times reported on March 13. But Gates and McChrystal apparently convinced him to abandon that suggestion and accept their position during the preparations for the Karzai visit.
McChrystal does not want any suggestion that either the United States or the Afghan government are contemplating negotiations with the Taliban while he is trying to get the population of Kandahar to believe that US forces are not going to leave for a long time. Agreeing to negotiate with the Taliban would imply a readiness to agree to a timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. McChrystal has not explained, however, why the target population of Kandahar or Helmand province would conclude within only a few months at most that US troops would remain indefinitely, or why the same population should assume that the Taliban could be eliminated from its longtime political base.
Even though Obama is now committed to postponing negotiations, moreover, the administration is not denying that negotiations with the Taliban will be necessary. There is no timetable for when such negotiations might begin, but the official did not rule out the possibility after US military operations and a series of events over the next year, including the peace jirga and parliamentary elections, had "put pressure" on the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the administration views Karzai's peace jirga as useful in getting the process of reconciliation started. "It's a delicate balance," the administration official admitted.
---Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,” was published in 2006.