Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai paranoid, or is there a tactical shrewdness behind his accusation that the U.S. is double-dealing with the Taliban? In a speech Sunday, the ever-mutable Karzai accused the American government of colluding with the Taliban to justify continuing its military presence in Afghanistan. Karzai also insinuated that America played a part in the Afghan Defense Ministry bombing the previous day.
Karzai claimed that the recent defense ministry bombing served the U.S. agenda by scaring Afghans into imagining the horrendous violence that would engulf the country following the withdrawal of American troops. Both U.S. embassy spokesman David Snepp in Kabul and Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid have flatly rejected the existence of "unilateral talks" between the two parties. U.S. General Joseph Dunford further refuted claims that Taliban violence was desirable, was quoted as saying, “We have shed too much blood over the past 12 years … to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage.”
Such a claim goes against everything the U.S. and NATO have worked towards in the 12 years of their involvement in Afghanistan. The U.S. has ceased active, unilateral combat missions and has made crystal clear the desire to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. U.S. advisers and consultants will likely remain, along with a steady flow of foreign aid coupled with reconstruction initiatives, similar to the current U.S.-Iraq relationship. To assert that violence and instability in Afghanistan might serve some sort of U.S. grand strategy in the region defies belief. This is not the first time Karzai has gone on record with an absurdity such as this — he has also publicly threatened to join the Taliban, and has painted NATO allies as plunderers.
Karzai’s claim of U.S.-Taliban collusion is baseless. What’s caused him to espouse such nonsensical rhetoric?
Karzai’s allegation serves two purposes. The first is an attempt to regain some of the face lost when the U.S. canceled plans to cede full control of the Bagram Prison to the Afghan government, an insult to both Afghan sovereignty and competency. The promise to hand over the prison was loudly proclaimed a victory by Karzai in a speech to parliament, in which he announced he would release innocent detainees. Second, and more importantly, it is an attempt by Karzai to distance himself from the West. He seeks to identify an "other" to oppose, which can be instrumental in constructing a common identity between himself and the Taliban as a prelude to opening his own peace talks. Karzai has realized that once talks with the Taliban begin, it would be beneficial that he not be seen as a Western puppet.
Worry not, U.S.-Afghan relations will survive this episode. Politicians understand politicians, as defense secretary Chuck Hagel said, and Karzai’s accusation will be quickly forgotten. Karzai has previously said much worse to no effect. There is no reason to think things will be different this time around. Karzai would be well-advised to avoid such slight in the future given the precarious state Afghanistan will be in following U.S. and NATO withdrawal. Afghanistan will not benefit from an alienated America.
What should the U.S. take from this? It should reflect on the relationship it wants to have with the Taliban. Following the withdrawal of troops in 2014, two scenarios can play out: compromise or conflict. The Taliban could be included with other minor insurgent militias and the current government in a form of consociational power-sharing, or the Taliban could take over the country again. Given that the Taliban has successfully brought the world’s most powerful army to a stalemate, the Afghan military alone will be hard-pressed to perpetuate the Karzai government. The U.S. and Karzai should engage the Taliban now while they still have something to bring to the table. Otherwise, the U.S. might as well start developing relations with the future government of Afghanistan — the Taliban.