Ahead of next year’s withdrawal of western forces

The Afghan government and the Taliban have begun scrambling for political high ground ahead of next year’s withdrawal of western forces that is likely to result in a power vacuum.

The tussle between the elected government in Kabul and the Taliban was out in the open in Doha, where the latter will soon be permitted to open an office. Afghans President Hamid Karzai is in the Qatari capital over the past two days, and held talks on Sunday with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

While the deliberations are being kept under wraps, Aimal Faizi, Mr. Karzai’s spokesman aired Kabul’s misgivings about allowing the Taliban to climb centrestage over the difficult negotiations over Afghanistan’s future that are anticipated ahead of the departure of NATO forces at the end of 2014.

“If we want to have talks to bring peace to Afghanistan, the main side must be the Afghan government’s representatives, the High Peace Council, which has members from all the country’s ethnic and political backgrounds,” observed Mr. Faizi.

In the past, the Karzai administration has stressed that talks with the Taliban can commence only if the hardline militant group gives up violence and breaks all links with al-Qaeda. Mr. Faizi insisted that the Taliban office “can only be an address where the armed opposition sit and talk to the Afghanistan government”. “This office cannot be used for any other purposes.”

Analysts point out that the U.S. may have played a significant role in persuading the Karzai government to lower hostility towards the Taliban. A joint statement by the U.S. President Barack Obama and Mr. Karzai had earlier said the two leaders “would support an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the High Peace Council and the authorised representatives of the Taliban”.

The United Nations (U.N.) has also welcomed Mr. Karzai’s decision to visit Qatar, and exhorted the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

“You are Afghans, you care, I assume, about your country, you care about [a] peaceful stable future of the country,” said Jan Kubis, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban have so far cold-shouldered suggestions of opening talks with the Afghan government in Doha. “The opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is not related to [Mr.] Karzai, it is a matter between the Taliban and the Qatar government,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP. “Our representatives who are already in Qatar won’t see or talk to him.”