The Obama administration’s fantasyland attempt at talks with the Taliban took another significant blow on Thursday. In a statement released online, Mullah Omar’s organization announced that it “has decided to suspend all talks with Americans taking place in Qatar from today onwards until the Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned and until they show willingness in carrying out their promises instead of wasting time.”
The goals of the nascent peace talks have evolved over time, at least as they have been reported in the press.
Initially, the State Department wanted the Taliban to adhere to three preconditions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped those preconditions last year when they proved to be unrealistic.
As the New York Times previously reported, Clinton “first signaled the opening for talks by recasting the administration’s longstanding preconditions: that the insurgents lay down their arms, accept the Afghan Constitution and separate from Al Qaeda.” What were once necessary preconditions became, in Clinton’s words, “necessary outcomes.”
But the Taliban openly rejected these one-time preconditions, turned goals, for the peace talks in a statement earlier this year. The Taliban has never demonstrated any willingness to come to the negotiating table in a meaningful way.
Earlier this week, Josh Rogin reported at Foreign Policy’s Cable blog that the “crux” of the talks involved a prisoner exchange. The Obama administration has been considering the transfer of five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo to Qatar. A few press reports previously indicated that the five hardened Taliban commanders were to be exchanged for a westerner held by the Taliban. Most of the reporting on the talks, however, indicated that the Taliban five were to be transferred to Qatar as a confidence boosting measure intended to get the Taliban to come to the table. The Taliban used similar phrasing in previous statements.
Rogin, citing Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D, Cal.). reported that the prisoner swap was actually more integral to the talks than previously recognized. “That’s the framework of the exchange. But it’s presented as a confidence-building measure,” Feinstein told Rogin. “We are giving up people who killed a lot of people, people who were head of major efforts of the Taliban.”
In its statement today, the Taliban says that the talks were always intended to lead to the prisoner swap, and reports of more substantive negotiations were merely “propaganda.”
“The Americans initially agreed upon taking practical steps regarding the exchange of prisoners and to not oppose our political office but with the passage of time, they turned their backs on their promises and started initiating baseless propaganda portraying the envoys of the Islamic Emirate as having commenced multilateral negotiations for solving the Afghan dilemma,” the Taliban said.
The Taliban also said that it decided to halt any attempt at talks after “an American representative presented a list of conditions in his latest meeting with the Islamic Emirate which were not only unacceptable but also in contradiction with the earlier agreed upon points.”
It is not known if the American side decided to reintroduce its preconditions, or introduced some other conditions, or if the Taliban is being disingenuous. The statement is, as with all Taliban statements, propaganda. Interestingly, it is consistent with Rogin’s account, which is based on Feinstein’s assessment.
The Obama administration previously told the press that the Taliban’s decision to open a political office in Qatar was potentially a significant step forward for the putative peace talks. The Taliban stresses in its statement, however, that “the inauguration of political office in Qatar was not but for the sake of reaching an understanding with the outside world and particularly for the exchange of prisoners with the Americans in the initial stages.”
Citing security concerns, Rogin did not report the name of the westerner who may be exchanged for the Taliban five. But the Telegraph (UK) reported in January that the Taliban was set to turn over Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who has been held captive since 2009.
Bergdahl is held by Mullah Sangeen Zadran, a Haqqani Network commander who openly proclaims his alliance with al Qaeda. In 2009, Sangeen was interviewed by al Qaeda’s media arm, As Sahab. When asked about relations between the Taliban and al Qaeda, Sangeen explained:
All praise is for Allah, Al-Qaeda and Taliban all are Muslims and we are united by the brotherhood of Islam. We do not see any difference between Taliban and Al- Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam. Sheikh Usama has pledged allegiance to Amir Al-Mumineen (Mulla Muhammad Umar) and has reassured his leadership again and again.
There is no difference between us, for we are united by Islam and the Sharia governs us. Just as the infidels are one people, so are the Muslims, and they will never succeed in disuniting the Mujahideen, saying that there is Al- Qaeda and Taliban, and that Al-Qaeda are terrorists and extremists. They use many such words, but by the Grace of Allah, it will not affect our brotherly relationship. Now they are also trying to disunite the Taliban, saying that there are two wings, one extremist and another moderate. However, the truth is that we are all one and are united by Islam.
To the extent that the Obama administration still wants to continue with the nascent peace talks, the proposed prisoner exchange demonstrates a key flaw.
The Obama administration wants the Taliban to renounce al Qaeda. Bergdahl’s captor, however, says this is not happening any time soon. Meanwhile, the five senior Taliban leaders who would be transferred have substantive and longstanding ties to al Qaeda. That is, the prisoner swap demonstrates just how problematic the administration’s goal for the talks really is.
Before the Taliban announced that it had suspended its dialog with the U.S., the Taliban five agreed to be transferred to Qatar. But this is hardly surprising. And this angle to the story represents still another problem with the Obama administration’s attempt at dialog with the Taliban.
The choice of Qatar is especially problematic, as it is a hotbed for terrorist fundraising.
A leaked State Department cable authored on December 30, 2009, nearly one year into President Obama’s tenure, includes a summary of the problem. The cable reads (emphasis added):
Qatar has adopted a largely passive approach to cooperating with the U.S. against terrorist financing. Qatar's overall level of CT cooperation with the U.S. is considered the worst in the region. Al-Qaida, the Taliban, UN-1267 listed LeT, and other terrorist groups exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale. Although Qatar's security services have the capability to deal with direct threats and occasionally have put that capability to use, they have been hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals.
The same cable repeatedly “emphasize[s] the need to prevent the Taliban from using the cover of reconciliation talks to raise funds.” This is from the same State Department that has been leading the effort at peace talks with the Taliban.
It is no wonder that top Senate Democrats have been skeptical of the proposed transfer to Qatar. Senator Feinstein told Rogin that she opposes it. And Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed similar concerns during a hearing last month.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.