KABUL — Saturday could hardly have been less auspicious for the looming talks between the United States and the Afghan government on a strategic partnership deal that would extend the U.S. presence in the country far into the future.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai seemed intent on torpedoing any possible goodwill between the two countries with another scathing speech aimed at his ostensible allies.
Speaking at a conference Saturday morning that was carried live on national television, Karzai confirmed that the international military, particularly the United States, were engaged in peace negotiations with the Taliban.
"Peace talks are going on with the Taliban. The foreign military and especially the United States itself is going ahead with these negotiations," he said.
This may have come as somewhat of a surprise to the parties in question.
The United States, while issuing positive statements about the necessity for talks with the Taliban, has never actually confirmed that negotiations were underway.
Marc Grossman, the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was in the region a few weeks ago, with, as the media reported, a one-point agenda: to reconcile Afghanistan’s warring factions. The problem was he was having difficulty finding anyone to talk to.
Karzai on Saturday denied that his government was actually holding talks, although his own High Peace Council has said on numerous occasions that contact had been established.
The Afghan president seemed to be in a contrary mood in general, blasting NATO and its allies for the attacks it was carrying out in his country.
“There are 140 countries here in our country, they’re using different explosive materials, chemical materials and all these things … this has a negative impact on our environment, our animals, our people, so we will ask them about this. They should not think we are uneducated and do not know anything,” said Karzai.
Well, one thing the Afghan president seems not to know is that the NATO-led coalition is actually made up of 49 countries, not 140.
Karzai has not softened his stance of a few weeks ago, when he warned the international troops that Afghan people would soon come to regard them as occupiers, with all attendant consequences.
“History has shown how Afghans deal with occupiers,” he said.
But consistency does not seem to be the Afghan president’s long suit. Just over a week after he threatened NATO with jihad, he asked United States President Barack Obama not to order too steep a withdrawal of troops this summer, since the Afghan military was not yet prepared to take on defense of the country.
But now he has reverted to his hard-line rhetoric.
“You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help, every minute we were thanking them. Now I have stopped saying that,” Karzai said Saturday.
Just as the Afghan president was delivering his remarks, the insurgency was preparing its own response to peace talks.
A few blocks from the Arg, as the presidential palace is known, at least three suicide attackers stormed a police district station that also houses a busy market; in the ensuing battle, two Afghan police were killed as well as all of the attackers, at least one of whom was wearing an Afghan army uniform.
Attacks by uniformed insurgents have become depressingly common of late in Kabul; on May 21 a suicide attacker hit a military hospital in Kabul, killing six medical students and injuring at least 23. The attacker was in military garb, said eyewitnesses.
In April, a man in an Air Force uniform shot and killed eight U.S. servicemen and a U.S. contractor in Kabul airport.
A week or so before that attack, a man in an Army uniform made it all the to the Defense Minister’s office and opened fire, killing three and injuring six before being shot by the Minister’s bodyguards.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for all of the attacks.
This latest strike comes as the United States and Afghanistan are preparing to launch discussions of a Strategic Partnership agreement that will set the parameters for continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
With opposition to the war growing among American voters, the U.S. president will be under considerable pressure to make good on his promise to begin a drawdown of troops this summer, especially since Afghanistan is becoming a hot-button issue for next year’s presidential elections.
The prospect of an imminent withdrawal fills many Afghans with dread; while the United States claims that the training of local forces is proceeding on schedule, few think that Afghan forces will be fully able to handle their own security for years to come.
Nevertheless, the NATO-led coalition is preparing to hand over seven initial sites to full Afghan control this summer. These include Herat, in the west; Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north, Lashkar Gah, in the volatile south; somnolent Bamian, in the center of the country; as well as the Panjshir Valley, parts of Kabul province, and eastern Laghman.
Ever since the Afghan president announced the seven sites in March, the Taliban have seemed eager to prove that they could take on all of those locations and more.
Normally peaceful Herat suffered a major attack at the end of May; Mazar-e-Sharif saw violent demonstrations on April 1. The head of Bamian’s Provincial Council was killed the first week of June, and Kabul has been increasingly dangerous as the transition approaches.
Karzai has previously expressed a strong desire for an extended American presence in the country, and is preparing to hold a Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, this summer to seek public support for permanent bases.
His recent anti-Western rhetoric may be aimed at his neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, who have expressed strong opposition to any long-term American presence on their doorstep.
Not that the United States has been all that eager to embrace the idea of an unlimited obligation in Afghanistan.
The outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently said in an interview with Afghanistan’s TOLO TV that the United States did not want permanent bases in Afghanistan. Instead, he said, they would welcome “joint bases.”
Karzai’s push-pull tactics are not winning him points with his own increasingly recalcitrant constituency. Many have seen his erratic behavior as a sign of weakness, or worse.
But Afghans are also conflicted in their attitude towards the foreign community. While resentful of the sometimes high-handed behavior of foreign troops, most Afghans are fearful that their absence would signal the outbreak of civil war or a return of the Taliban.
“If the foreign troops leave tomorrow, the Taliban will be in Kabul the next day,” said a young taxi driver. “And I’ll be on my way out of Afghanistan.”