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U.S. 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 Wednesday. But their comments underlined the deep rift that divides Karzai and the United States over the issue.
Karzai obtained Obama’s approval for the peace jirga scheduled for later this month – an event the Obama administration had earlier regarded with grave doubt because of Karzai’s ostensible invitation to the Taliban to participate.
On the broader question of reconciliation, however, Obama was clearly 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, because of Karzai’s well-known pattern of catering to views of the Pashtun population, which are overwhelmingly favourable to peace talks with the Taliban.
Obama endorsed the peace jirga, but he limited U.S. 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 U.S. military has carried out Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan for southern Afghanistan.
"One of the things I emphasised 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military occupation of Kandahar City and surrounding districts at a large shura Apr. 4.
An administration official who is familiar with the Obama-Karzai meeting confirmed to IPS Thursday that the differences between the two over the issue of peace talks remained, but that the administration regards 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 is 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 counterinsurgency strategy has been tried appears to represent a policy that has been hammered out within the administration at the insistence of Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Gen. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Obama had suggested in a White House meeting Mar. 12 that it might be time to initiate talks with the Taliban, the New York Times reported Mar. 13. But Gates and McChrystal apparently prevailed on 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. troops will remain indefinitely, or why the same population should assume that the Taliban can 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 U.S. 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 with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. 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.