In an incredible moment of lucidity, Karzai seems to have finally realized two things that much of the rest of the world — and his Afghan opposition — has been telling him for a pretty long time. In a meeting with a group of religious leaders, Karzai said the following:
Where is [Mullah Omar]? We cannot find the Taliban Council. Where is it? A messenger comes disguised as a Taliban Council member and kills, and they neither confirm nor reject it.
Who is the other side in the peace process? I do not have any other answer but to say Pakistan is the other side in the peace talks with us.
His favorite expression for the Taliban had always been “angry brothers,” with whom he had insisted that Afghanistan should reconcile. He had held his ground in the face of stiffest criticism from his political opposition and the barrage of assassination of high-level government officials, senior security officials, his own brother and, most recently, his chief peace negotiator. That he has now turned against his “angry brothers” is a huge change from him.
This step from Karzai will radically alter the equation for everyone — Pakistan, the Taliban, the Afghan opposition, the United States, Iran, KSA, India and the Afghan people. But what does it exactly mean for the various actors involved in the picture? As of this writing, there hasn’t been any official reaction from any of these parties; that said, here’s a preliminary attempt at making sense of it all.
The “Northern Alliance”:
Karzai’s political opposition, which had doggedly opposed any talks with the Taliban, has scored a huge victory by having one of their longstanding demands recognized. But not only that, Karzai’s recognition of Pakistan as the real party to any settlement has affirmed their perennial suspicion toward Pakistan and its security institutions. So their victory is both political and moral.
Bolstered, they will likely amp up their opposition toward Pakistan, which they have always seen as interfering in Afghanistan’s internal matters and always backing anyone but them.
The Taliban have been behaving like the spoiled child that gets the candy but still maintains the nagging, unreasonable behavior. The UN Security Council removed about a dozen Taliban members from its blacklist, and Karzai had maintained an open embrace with a bag of goodies at the end of one arm in exchange for the Taliban dropping their weapons. This despite the carnage they wreaked in the country in the last few years. So the Taliban have been scoring international points and making domestic inroads by assassinating key leaders and expanding their presence across Afghanistan.
But by refusing to treat them as a legitimate party to negotiations, Karzai has ostensibly withdrawn the golden handshake. The terms of the previous offer are no longer valid — Taliban leaders won’t get (what amounts to) amnesty in exchange for peace and they likely won’t get to participate in the political process. (Those were huge concessions that Karzai had made even before getting to the negotiating table!)
The Taliban will now have to do their bidding through Pakistan, with whom they have always had a love-hate relationship — they have continued to receive needed help and support, but have always resented Pakistan.
The Afghan people:
The biggest losers of the whole reintegration/peace/reconciliation/negotiation saga, the Afghan people, will be watching President Karzai intently for his next moves. The previous peace process was not inclusive – Karzai had convened a rubber-stamp loya jirga to give himself the green light on negotiations. Three-day jirgas are hardly any substitute to serious, inclusive national debates about such issues of immense importance. In true democracies, hand-picked jirgas can’t make effective foreign policy or decide matters relating to serious national crimes and injustices.
Karzai had not consulted the broader Afghan public about reconciliation and, perhaps purposefully, not set out any clear and definite parameters for reconciliation, expected outcomes and the extent of concessions.
Pakistan et. al.:
Karzai handed Pakistan a victory by accepting unconditionally and decisively their longstanding demand that they be recognized as the principal party to any future settlement in Afghanistan. It is unclear who Karzai will get to negotiate with in Pakistan — the ISI-military side or the civilian government. And it is unclear how sincerely, if at all, Pakistan will engage in any talks. However, although the Afghan recognition of their role is important, the Pakistanis really covet the same acceptance from the United States.
And they will view Karzai’s concession as an important step to that end. Regardless, Pakistanis area already feeling better in their strategic calculus vis-a-vis India, which will be watching everything warily.
Iran, which had just started to cultivate ties with the Taliban, will also need to reassess its policy. They have historically been close to the Hazara/Shia and the Tajik camps and will likely continue to press their side. KSA — whose diplomats left Kabul last week and whose proxy now has the rug snatched from under its feet — has lost much of its status as the arbiter that could bring the Taliban to the table and broker a deal.
Naturally, talks with Pakistan are radically different from negotiations with the Taliban. If Pakistan chooses to oblige and negotiate a settlement, they will have obligations under international law. Whether Pakistan will choose to honor any final settlement and what the world can do to enforce those obligations in case of noncompliance is a different matter.
Because of the different nature of this ‘peace process,’ the Afghans will need to do new soul-searching. A broad national consultation will need to take place to determine what the nation is ready to give in exchange for peace, and what they hope to realistically gain from negotiations. Perhaps a little less urgently, the Afghans will need to decide whether they will continue to fight the insurgency indefinitely and how to handle justice issues related to Taliban’s crimes during and before the insurgency.
And Karzai’s success won’t just be determined by the domestic support of his policies. He will also need to have serious international backing. But that’s not guaranteed, given that he just left the United States high and dry by abandoning the trilateral peace process.