Politically, the United States for now is a nation deeply divided but if there is one point most Americans probably would eagerly endorse it is that our nation needs to put Afghanistan’s troubles behind us as soon as possible.
The Obama administration understands that and is trying hard to meet its goal of withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year. But between now and then, the issues just seem to become more and more vexing for Washington. This past weekend was no exception.
The most recent idea to run into difficulty was to hold three-way peace talks among the Afghans, the Taliban insurgents and the United States, but then the Taliban decided to dress up their office in neutral Qatar as an embassy and to fly the old Taliban flag (from the days when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan), decisions that infuriated the Afghans and annoyed the Americans.
Yes, it’s essentially a dispute over symbolism, and yet it has the potential to scuttle the three-way talks before they even get started. Secretary of State John Kerry declared over the weekend that the newly opened Taliban office “has to be closed” because if it remains open that’s a sign the insurgents have no intention of negotiating in good faith.
A senior Taliban official in Pakistan, speaking by telephone, said Friday the insurgents would not take down their flag or the embassy sign. And he accused the United States and Qatar of breaking their promise that the Taliban could fly the flag and call its office its embassy. One side or the other is being less than truthful.
Furious because of the Taliban’s behavior, the Afghans broke off joint military talks with the United States and said they would not send representatives to Qatar for the talks. And so, on the diplomatic front, the complications continue and the ill feelings among the proposed participants show no signs of abating. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine the talks ever achieving what Washington could label a success.
In the meantime, the Taliban made headlines yesterday in a totally different – and far more repugnant — manner when it took responsibility for the brutal murder of nine foreign mountain climbers in a remote corner of Pakistan. It explained the killings were revenge for American drone strikes, in particular the one that on May 29 killed the Taliban’s deputy leader, Wali ur-Rehman.
Five Ukrainians and three Chinese — in all likelihood, none of whom had even the slightest connection to the Afghan conflict — were among the victims, officials said. The nationality of the ninth climber was not immediately known. In addition, the climbers’ Pakistani guide was also slain.
The attack occurred in what has been described as a beautiful, mountainous area where in recent years attacks on foreigners have been extremely rare. The victims were planning to climb 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain.
Reports indicated that the Taliban gunmen, dressed in police uniforms, had stormed into the climbers’ hotel early Sunday morning and opened fire. Their killing done, they took the victims’ money and passports and fled to safety.
Such atrocities, and the Taliban’s acknowledgment of responsibility, raise a serious question: What ultimately is to be gained by negotiating with such an enemy? Perhaps, in this light, the scuttling of Qatar talks might be a good thing.
Yet there appears to be no way out of Afghanistan for the United States unless it uses its influence to modify the Taliban’s behavior, and, sadly, that can’t happen without some kind of give-and-take.
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