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Taliban Political Office Raises Alarm Bells In Kabul

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) may have his own objections, the saber rattling of warlords like General Abdul Rashid Dostum (left, with President Hamid Karzai) could lead to war breaking out again.
It was heralded as a significant step toward reaching a negotiated peace with the Taliban, so why has the opening of a modest political office in Qatar been met with such fierce opposition by the Afghan government?

For Afghan President Hamid Karzai, it's because the Taliban's Doha office stands as a threat to unravel everything his government has worked for over the past 12 years.

"[Afghan officials in Kabul] will see the Americans negotiating with the Taliban, while they're left on the sidelines with no central role," says Anatol Lieven, a professor and Afghanistan expert at King's College London.

"President Karzai and his immediate followers, in particular, see a very strong risk that they will find themselves completely sidelined in Afghanistan and even eliminated politically as a result of a deal made between the Taliban and the United States -- and any other Afghan forces that want to climb on board -- with essentially no role for the present Afghan government at all."

The fact that the office was opened with all the trappings of an official embassy did not help things. Before preliminary discussions could begin between U.S. and Taliban officials, Karzai objected angrily to the presence of the Taliban's flag and insignia on the grounds of the building.

That issue was quickly resolved with the removal of Taliban symbols visible from the street, but the bigger slight remains just under the surface. It was one thing to not be consulted, and another to not be invited to the negotiating table. But why was the Taliban being allowed to act like a "government in waiting" during peace negotiations that Kabul feels it should rightfully lead?

Karzai's Legacy

Karzai has spent years trying to convince key players in the conflict that Kabul must be central to any talks and that peace must be negotiated on terms acceptable to his government. For Karzai, an Afghan-led peace process offers him the opportunity to secure his legacy, and the challenge of orchestrating a settlement despite strong reservations from within his own camp.

One misstep, it seems, and the powerful warlords and regional strongmen who have made their way into the government will bail on the whole experiment and go their own way.

READ MORE: What Afghanistan, United States, Taliban Seek From Doha Talks

The Taliban's political office signals a shift in trajectory that Karzai could not allow. This point was hammered home last week when Kabul halted talks with Washington on security arrangements that would determine the conditions under which U.S. forces could stay behind after most troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

Ryan Evans, associate fellow of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, suggests that Kabul has little choice but to play the role of spoiler. "This isn't just Karzai, this is him trying to cater for the many different interest groups and factions within Afghanistan as well," he says. "You would be getting a lot of pressure, for example, from former warlords like [Mohammad] Ismail Khan, [General Abdul Rashid] Dostum, and former Northern Alliance commanders who are against the very idea of talks with the Taliban."

Professor Lieven notes that Karzai, who will be replaced as president in an election slated for next spring, is not crucial to negotiations. But Karzai must be mindful of the fragile state of the government. Without the approval of the country's powerful former warlords and leaders of the country's ethnic minorities, any peace deal could mean a government collapse and even civil war.

"The people without whom there cannot be a peace settlement in Afghanistan are the leaders of the ethnicities, which support the present Afghan government, including the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, and the commanders of the Afghan National Army," Lieven says. "If both of these groups reject a peace settlement with the Taliban then, by definition, there can be no peace settlement because these are forces which will remain of permanent importance in Afghanistan, unlike Karzai."

A Return To Civil War?

Many of those figures helped U.S.-led forces oust the Taliban from power in 2001, and have fiercely resisted any scenario that could facilitate the group's return to the fold. Several prominent members of the Afghan government have already threatened to rearm and remobilize their forces should their power be challenged.

"If one man oppresses me, I will take my weapon and go to the mountains," First Vice President Marshal Qasim Fahim stated publicly on June 11. "This is Afghanistan's misfortune and problem."

Less than a week later, a spokesman for General Dostum's Junbish National Islamic Party said weapons were being distributed to party supporters. The statement led to accusations that Dostum, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Afghan National Army, was trying to carve out his own "fiefdom" in northern Afghanistan.

ALSO READ: Taliban: Qatar Office Marks Beginning Of Political Track

The influence of such elements, who have the means to scupper both the peace process and the government at any time, weighs heavily in any discussion on Afghanistan's future.

"Even before any shots are fired, rearming in and of itself is a clear warning that [discussion] will have to consider the interests of these key power brokers across the country," David Young, a conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project based in Washington, explains. "If it were to ignore these warnings or co-opt only a handful of those militias then other militias could derail the process later on by unilaterally attacking the Taliban during an eventual cease-fire."

All of which makes the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar -- one that hones the ousted group's image as a state power while exposing rifts within the current Afghan government -- something that Kabul could not allow to go unchallenged.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.