Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban about reaching a peace agreement without the involvement of his US and Western allies, further corroding already strained relations with the US.
The secret contacts appear to help explain a string of actions by Karzai that seem intended to antagonize his US backers, Western and Afghan officials said.
In recent weeks, Karzai has continued to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington that he negotiated, insisted on releasing hardened Taliban militants from prison and distributed distorted evidence of what he called US war crimes.
The clandestine contacts with the Taliban have borne little fruit, according to people who have been told about them. However, they have helped undermine the remaining confidence between the US and Karzai, making the already messy endgame of the Afghan conflict even more volatile.
Support for the war effort in the US Congress has deteriorated sharply, and US officials say they are uncertain whether they can maintain even minimal security cooperation with Karzai’s government or its successor after coming elections.
Frustrated by Karzai’s refusal to sign the security agreement, which would clear the way for US troops to stay on for training and counterterrorism work after the end of the year, US President Barack Obama summoned his top commanders to the White House for a meeting yesterday to consider the future of the US mission in Afghanistan.
Western and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the contacts, said that the outreach was apparently initiated by the Taliban in November last year, a time of deepening mistrust between Karzai and his allies.
Karzai seemed to jump at what he believed was a chance to achieve what the US was unwilling or unable to do, and reach a deal to end the conflict — a belief that few in his camp shared.
Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi acknowledged the secret contacts with the Taliban and said they were continuing.
“The last two months have been very positive,” Faizi said, characterizing the contacts as among the most serious the presidential palace has had since the war began.
“These parties were encouraged by the president’s stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards,” he said.
However, other Afghan and Western officials said that the contacts had fizzled, and that whatever the Taliban may have intended at the outset, they no longer had any intention of negotiating with the Afghan government.
They said that top Afghan officials had met with influential Taliban leaders in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in recent weeks, and were told that any prospects of a peace deal were now gone.
The Afghan and Western officials questioned whether the interlocutors that Karzai was in contact with actually had connections to the Taliban movement’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose blessing would be needed for any peace deal the group might strike.
Though there have been informal contacts between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders since the very early days of the war, the insurgents’ opaque and secretive leaders have made their intentions difficult to discern.
Afghan officials have struggled in recent years to find genuine Taliban representatives, and have flitted among a variety of current and former insurgent leaders, most of whom had only tenuous connections to Omar and his inner circle, US and Afghan officials have said.