Did Karzai Sabotage Peace Talks in Afghanistan?

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The U.S. was holding secret negotiations with the Taliban--until Afghanistan's president told the world they were happening

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Reports that the Afghan government deliberately undermined U.S. negotiations with the Taliban suggest that the path to peace in Afghanistan requires navigating between the Scylla of a hostile enemy and the Charybdis of truculent allies.

According to the Associated Press, the United States held a series of secret peace talks with the Taliban in 2010 and 2011. The negotiations were apparently making progress before they were undermined by an act of deliberate sabotage. Officials close to Hamid Karzai publicly leaked the talks for fear that the Afghan president would be sidelined. The discussions then collapsed and the Taliban negotiator fled into hiding--where he hasn't been heard from for months.

Ahmed Rashid, writing at the New York Review of Books, is more optimistic. The claim that:

the talks have stalled is completely wrong according to my well-informed sources, who insist that they are continuing despite leaks to the press, as well as threats to the security of the participants and other problems.

Whatever the precise status of the current discussions, the episode reveals that negotiating peace is not simply a matter of bargaining with the enemy: keeping friends on board can be an even greater challenge. Wartime alliances resemble a group of prisoners bound together in a chain gang. If one prisoner marches toward the horizon, another may dig his heels in and bring the whole expedition to a shuddering halt.

In both of America's bloodiest wars after 1945--the Korean War and the Vietnam War--U.S. allies tried to sabotage a peace deal parlayed by Washington. 

The U.S. spent the last two years of the Korean War, from 1951-1953, negotiating an armistice with the enemy, even while thousands of Americans, Koreans and Chinese continued to die. But U.S. ally and South Korean president Syngman Rhee was a fierce critic of the peace talks and opposed any agreement that left Korea divided. In 1953, when a truce agreement was in sight, Rhee jeopardized the settlement by organizing public demonstrations against a deal and threatening to continue the war on his own.

In the fall of 1972, the outlines of a settlement were in place to end the Vietnam War--or, more accurately, to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But like Rhee before him, South Vietnam leader Nguyen Van Thieu was deeply skeptical about talks and was outraged with the draft peace settlement. He publicly released an altered version of the deal that made the terms appear even worse than they actually were.

In both Korea and Vietnam, massive U.S. pressure and the full panoply of carrots and sticks were required to win Rhee and Thieu's acquiescence to a deal--and keep the chain gang in lockstep.

Maintaining alliances in Afghanistan while negotiating peace may be even trickier. For one thing, the war is extremely complex with multiple actors pursuing their own agendas. One member of Karzai's High Peace Council commented that: "all the key players...are holding separate and secret talks with their own contacts within the insurgency." With so many cooks, the broth may easily be spoiled.

And there is another reason to worry. The Karzai faction is actually one of the stronger advocates of negotiating with the Taliban--and yet they still sabotaged the discussions.

Other members of America's chain gang are more reluctant to stride toward peace talks. The so-called Northern Alliance, or the non-Pashtun northern groups that helped the United States topple the Taliban back in 2001, are opposed to bringing the Taliban into government--or even negotiating at all.

Amrullah Saleh resigned from the Afghan government in protest at reconciliation with the Taliban, and led a rally of 10,000 in Kabul against a deal--his "anti-Taliban constituency." Saleh hinted that any peace deal might be followed by the re-mobilization of northern forces: "Don't push me to take a gun."

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, TIME.com, and on NPR.
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