The Taliban: coming soon to an embassy in Qatar
Originally posted at Kabobfest
Goodwill is not something the Taliban have found in short supply over the festive season. Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, agreed last week to the opening of a Taliban liaison office in Qatar, a week after Joe Biden set out to make it clear that ‘the Taliban per se are not our enemy’.
The Taliban’s new embassy is intended to speed up the peace process by establishing a base for reconciliation talks away from Afghanistan and its neighbouring areas. Picture Obama, Karzai and Taliban leaders sitting in air-conditioned rooms together and sipping fizzy water, (served by surly Taliban fighters with name badges). This hasn’t always seemed the likely prospect that it does today.
The Taliban were once synonymous with evil, part of an axis of terror that had to be defeated in an epic battle with the forces of justice and freedom. They struck the mould for the Western image of women-hating, oppressive, violent Islamists and extremists. On September 20, 2011, President Bush announced a war on terror which would begin ‘with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.’ In 2008, he promised: ‘so long as the terrorist danger remains, the United States of America will continue to fight the enemy wherever it makes its stand.’ So what was it that led to the shift from casting the Taliban as the enemy in an ideological war to questioning their relevance to U.S. interests? Essentially, it became clear that American and British forces were fighting a losing battle.
It isn’t even necessary to reach back as far as Bush’s presidency, given that Obama’s campaign for election included an emphasis on shifting forces away from Iraq, ‘and taking the fight to terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan’. All of which makes Biden’s attempt to suggest the lack of ‘a single statement that the President has ever made…that the Taliban is our enemy,’ look a little like hair-splitting.
So what was it that led to the shift from casting the Taliban as the enemy in an ideological war to questioning their relevance to U.S. interests? Essentially, it became clear that American and British forces were fighting a losing battle.
As early as 2009, Obama began to acknowledge that a reconciliation process might become necessary. Asked in an interview with the New York times whether the U.S. was winning the war in Afghanistan, he responded ‘no’, and argued that part of America’s success in Iraq had relied on reaching out to people ‘that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists’, who had nevertheless been alienated by al-Qaida.
There were reports earlier in December 2011 of a tentative deal between the Obama administration and Taliban negotiators, which included the establishment of the liaison office, as well as the transfer of five Afghans from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. Sensitive to appearing sidelined in the wake of this September’s assasination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the commission meant to negotiate with the Taliban, the Afghan government promptly expressed its opposition and recalled its ambassador to Qatar.
Karzai’s apparent change of heart allowed him to pursue peace whilst imposing his government’s authority on the process by restricting foreign intervention in the talks. ‘It is an Afghan process, and we want it to be led by Afghans’, said Ismail Qassemyar of the Afghan high Peace Council, last week. The result is that a decade after the war on terror was launched, the Taliban look set to open an office in Qatar, with international approval. Politics is a funny old thing.