Karzai's peace gesture threw the United States off balance. "It came out of nowhere," says Gautam Mukhopadhaya, an Indian diplomat who closely tracks Afghan politics. Not only did Karzai proclaim his desire for talks with the enemy, he also outlined plans to convene an Afghan national council, called a jirga — scheduled to meet May 20th in Kabul — to create a national framework for dialogue with Taliban leaders. "People are desperate for peace," said Masoom Stanekzai, Karzai's national-security adviser.
Working closely with the United Nations — but without the approval of the U.S. — Karzai has orchestrated a series of moves designed to get a response from the Taliban. Behind the scenes, he reportedly carried out a quiet dialogue with a top Taliban commander, Mullah Baradar. Kai Eide, then the U.N. special representative in Kabul, also met separately with Baradar's associates and other delegates from the Taliban's leadership council, the Quetta Shura. "If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority," said Eide. "I think the time has come to do it." Karzai enacted a law to provide amnesty for violence committed before the U.S. invasion of 2001 — a measure that reassured Taliban leaders they would not be prosecuted for crimes committed during their rule. And, with Karzai's support, the U.N. removed five former Taliban officials from the so-called List 1267, a U.N.-sponsored watch list that targets 137 current and former Taliban leaders.
To Washington's dismay, the peace initiative has started to pay off. In March, a delegation from one of the main insurgent groups allied with the Taliban, the Islamic Party, traveled to Kabul for meetings with Karzai and U.N. officials. Back in the 1980s, the party's leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was the top recipient of U.S. aid in the CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. But when American troops invaded in 2001, Hekmatyar joined with the Taliban to wage war against the new occupation. Now, from his secret headquarters across the border in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, Hekmatyar sent a team of negotiators to Kabul. They carried a 15-point peace plan calling for reconciliation and new elections, predicated on a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. In talks with Karzai, Hekmatyar's representatives promised to persuade the Taliban to go along with the proposal.
"If the international troops accept and abide by our proposal and withdraw from the country according to the gradual timetable," said an Islamic Party spokesman, "then we will solve our internal problems through political debates and negotiations. We will solve all our internal issues by coming together."
Mohammad Daoud Abedi, one of the Islamic Party negotiators who met with Afghan and U.N. officials in Kabul, told reporters that his group was specifically inspired by President Obama's declaration last December that U.S. troops would start to pull out of Afghanistan next year. While the insurgents would prefer that the withdrawal happen more quickly, Abedi said, the precise schedule was something that could be negotiated between the two sides. "If that's what the international community with the leadership of the United States of America is planning — to leave — we better make the situation honorable enough for them to leave with honor," he explained.
Abedi, an Afghan-American, then added a wry reference to former vice president Dick Cheney's hunting accident in 2006. Speaking about his feelings toward the United States, Abedi said, "How can I consider my own country my enemy? I am not Dick Cheney that I shoot my friends."
Karzai's peace offensive has provoked open hostility from Washington. The Obama administration's policy toward Afghanistan is a diplomatic version of "Shoot first, ask questions later." Before any talks with the Taliban can begin, the White House argues, U.S. forces in Afghanistan — bolstered by the two surges that Obama ordered last year, doubling the number of American troops — must deliver punishing blows to the Taliban. "The shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders that they are in fact going to lose," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress. "It's when they begin to have doubts whether they can be successful that they may be willing to make a deal. I don't think we're there yet." Other U.S. officials also trashed Karzai's peace offensive. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the talks as "premature." Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan, expressed horror at the notion that Mullah Omar might be taken off the U.N.'s condemnation list. The U.S. military refuses to extend an olive branch by releasing Taliban insurgents held prisoner at Bagram Air Base, and in February the CIA worked with Pakistani intelligence agents to shut down the peace process by arresting Mullah Baradar, the Taliban commander in talks with Karzai.
At heart, the difference between U.S. strategy and Karzai's approach is the difference between "reintegration" and "reconciliation." Reintegration, part of the "counterinsurgency" strategy being pursued by Obama, involves pulling insurgents out of the Taliban one by one and winning them over with promises of jobs and cash — usually after an area has been cleared and pacified by U.S. troops. By contrast, reconciliation involves reaching a political deal with Taliban commanders, offering them a share of political power in Kabul in exchange for a cease-fire.
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