The fall-out from the murder of sixteen Afghan villagers by a US serviceman last week took a new twist on Thursday as President Hamid Karzai called on NATO troops to quit Afghan villages and confine themselves to major bases – a move, which if followed, could seriously disrupt plans for the NATO-led international security force to complete its exit from Afghanistan in 2014.
And in a separate development, the Taliban in Afghanistan have suspended preliminary peace talks with the United States.
Is Karzai serious about this?
Well, NATO leaders appear to be taking it with a pinch of salt. They suggest Karzai’s demand does not imply a timetable and is, in reality, no more than what NATO is planning anyway – in other words, a gradual withdrawal from its front-line role between now and the end of 2013. They will hope that the Afghan president will now leave it at that and let things return to the status quo before the killings. That may be wishful thinking. If it is and Karzai returns to the theme more insistently, then things could become really difficult. But NATO is unlikely to take any steps that it thinks might compromise its operational objectives or the safety of its troops.
Is the Afghan army any way near being ready to take over from NATO?
This is the heart of the matter and the simple answer to the question is “no”, the Afghan army is not yet ready to take over from the NATO-led force. This is a point that British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama both made forcefully in Washington this week. Yes, progress has been made. It more resembles a fighting force today than it did five years ago, but it is deeply divided. In short, more time is needed to prepare it for the take-over. The two years left to 2014 is probably not enough but is certainly preferable to an immediate takeover.
When Karzai talks about the Afghan Army taking the lead for national security in 2013, it really depends on what time of the year he has in mind. If he means before the start of the fighting season, then clearly it is neither realistic nor likely. If he means after the fighting season, then nobody really has an issue with that. NATO would stay on in a training role until 2014.
What has gone wrong in the talks with the Taliban?
This is a key question because high hopes had been pinned on the talks – which were in their preliminary stage: talks about talks with a Taliban office in Qatar. But the Taliban have called them off, accusing the US of constantly changing its position, which they described as “shaky, erratic and vague”. They also ruled out negotiations with the Kabul government, which they regard as illegitimate.
But this does not seem to be a definitive “no”. The Taliban say they have suspended the talks until the Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned.
Just how important are these talks?
With a military victory now looking beyond the grasp of the NATO-led force and withdrawal just two years away, the US needs to seek a settlement now while it still has cards to play. Wishful thinking is not going to make the Taliban go away. So talks will have to begin sooner or later. At his stage, the talks seem to have centred on a prisoner exchange involving Afghans detained at Guantanamo in return for a kidnapped American soldier.