(CNSNews.com) – On a day when President Obama met with senior security officials to discuss Afghanistan, the State Department took issue with suggestions that the U.S. would disapprove of secret contacts between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban.
The New York Times reported that Karzai’s apparently fruitless backchannel initiative was “further corroding already strained relations with the United States” and had “helped undermine the remaining confidence between the United States and Mr. Karzai.”
But when asked to comment on the reported secret talks, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a briefing that the administration has “long strongly supported an Afghan-led reconciliation, which would, of course, be Afghans talking to Afghans. So the notion that we wouldn’t support that dialogue is inaccurate.”
She recalled that President Obama and Karzai in January last year “reaffirmed that Afghan-led peace and reconciliation as the surest way to end violence and ensure the lasting stability of Afghanistan and the region.”
“And our objective continues to be, and our focus continues to be, promoting and supporting an inclusive, Afghan-led process.”
Asked whether Karzai had informed the U.S. about his secret talks, Psaki demurred.
“I’m not going to speak to our diplomatic engagement or discussions with the Afghan government,” she said. “I just simply want it to be clear that Afghan-led talks, Afghans talking to Afghans, is something we’ve long supported.”
Last June, the Obama administration announced the imminent opening of talks with the Taliban at the group’s newly-opened political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, but the initiative collapsed before it began amid fury from Karzai over the way the Taliban presented the office. (Karzai was unhappy that the Taliban declared the office to represent the “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan.”)
Psaki confirmed Tuesday that attempts to get U.S.-Taliban talks back on track remain stalled.
“There hasn’t been any change to that,” she said. “We’re not engaged in discussions with the Taliban.”
The Taliban seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996 and ruled until toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, when it took its insurgency back to the mountainous regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border. After successes and setbacks during 12 years of war, it remains a resilient force, and is widely thought to be biding its time until the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission ends in 11 months’ time.
U.S. proposals to retain a training and counterterrorism force in Afghanistan beyond that date to help prevent a Taliban comeback are in limbo, as Karzai continues to refuse to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) covering a post-2014 troop presence, even though tribal elders ratified it.
Obama discussed Afghanistan at the White House Tuesday with ISAF commander Gen. Joseph Dunford and other officials including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.
A White House spokeswoman said afterwards the meeting was constructive but that the president has yet to make decisions about troop presence after year’s end.
American troop numbers in Afghanistan now stand at around 34,000, down from a peak of around 101,000 in mid-2011. U.S. officials frustrated by Karzai’s stance have periodically floated the prospect of a “zero option” – deploying no troops whatsoever after the combat mission ends.
“Absent a signed BSA, there will be no, and can be no U.S. troops beyond 2014,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told a briefing Tuesday. “When you’re making plans for NATO, a dynamic organization with many members, around a situation like a military presence halfway around the world, you need time. You need time to prepare and you need time to plan.”
NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels in early March, and hopes that they would be able to move ahead with plans for the post-2014 mission are fast eroding. Karzai is due to leave office after elections in April but unless he relents the BSA is not likely be signed until after his successor is inaugurated.
NATO Secretary-Gneral Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned this week that Karzai was “playing with fire” with his public statements about the BSA.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the damaging effect on public and political support for our presence in Afghanistan [beyond 2014] when people hear such statements,” he told BBC Newsnight. “We have invested a lot in blood and treasure in Afghanistan.”
“Honestly speaking, I do think people in our countries would expect some signs of gratitude from the Afghan political leadership,” Rasmussen added.
More than 2,300 American troops, along with another 1,100 from Britain and other contributing nations, have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in October 2001.