Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Tactical, not terminal

The predominant media narrative was pretty straightforward:  U.S. soldier kills 16 Afghan civilians, the Taliban respond by suspending participation in U.S.-sponsored Afghan peace talks. Game over.

Or maybe not. As Missy Ryan reports today, efforts by the Obama administration to cajole the Taliban into peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while not exactly roaring forward, are not dead. U.S. officials see the Taliban move as tactical, not terminal, and more of a reflection of internal divisions within the movement than anything else. “Deep breaths, and not hyperventilation, are required here,” said one of the many U.S. officials Reuters interviewed.

The Taliban also appear put out that President Obama has not yet transferred senior Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to kick-start the talks. That’s a problem for Obama, who faces intense resistance to sending the Talibs to detention in Qatar. That Qatar has yet to agree to U.S. demands they be held under strict conditions further complicates matters.

Still, the massacre of the Afghan innocents may not have been the game-changer it was assumed to be. Karzai immediately demanded U.S. troops leave Afghan villages, but has not followed through. Further proof that things in Afghanistan are rarely what they seem, and that it pays to watch what the players do, not what they say.

Warren Strobel

Editor in Charge, U.S. Foreign Policy & National Security

Here are our top stories from Washington…

US see Taliban talks suspension as tactical move

The Taliban’s suspension of preliminary peace talks is a tactical move reflecting internal tensions, U.S. officials believe, rather than a definitive halt to discussions the White House hopes will bring a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan. U.S. officials had been bracing themselves for backlash from the militant group following a string of public setbacks that have scandalized and angered Afghans, notably U.S. soldiers’ burning of copies of the Koran and the killing of 16 Afghan villagers for which a U.S. soldier is in custody.

U.S. officials seek to shelve Karzai tensions

Tensions, what tensions?

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew arrived back from Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, touting the performance of several ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.

OBAMA-AFGHANISTANHis visit came at a particularly tense time in U.S.-Afghan relations after Karzai made some corrosive statements in recent weeks against his donors, blaming the West for much of the corruption in his country and drawing critical comments from the White House.

Hours after landing home, Lew went out of his way to single out several Afghan ministers, including the finance and agriculture ministers, who he said were “extraordinary leaders.”

Holbrooke: my relationship with Karzai is good, really

Absolutely they are on good terms…

Richard Holbrooke, special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, once again declared his respect for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. AFGHANISTAN/

In fact, he feels so strongly about reports that the two don’t get along he wrote a letter to The Washington Post.

“I did not, and never have, spoken harshly to Mr. Karzai, ” said Holbrooke in the letter to the editor, which was published on Thursday. He was responding to a story earlier this week in the newspaper which said he had spoken harshly to the re-elected Afghan leader.

Holbrooke jokes about Kerry’s Karzai eclipse

Power plays are always a tricky business in Washington and sometimes it’s better to make a joke out of it. Or not.

Special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, used that tactic on Friday when asked about reports that veteran Senator John Kerry is stealing his limelight.

“I’d like to make a joke and say, ‘I’m always happy to be eclipsed by John Kerry.’ But then you’ll take it seriously and then I’ll cause more problems,” Holbrooke told reporters.

from Global News Journal:

Afghanistan’s protracted election sours the mood

An atmosphere of stale defensiveness has sunk over Kabul. The mood has been lowered by the protracted saga of the Afghan election count, almost two months on from the first round August 20 vote. It's a drama veering towards farce more often than post-modern play, as we wait endlessly for a result, that like Godot, does not want to come.

Winter has not yet arrived in Kabul, though the evenings are cold, quickly taking the heat of the sun out of the day. Afghan politicians are frustrated and twitchy, second-guessing the reasons for the U.N.-backed election watchdog's plodding. We are being solidly methodological to retain the confidence of all, says the Electoral Complaints Commission, as it examines thousands of dodgy votes. A thankless task, most likely. The ECC officials will be puzzling over whether a box of votes has been mass-endorsed for one candidate, and should not stand, or if the suspiciously similar ticks on the ballot paper are attributable to only one man in the village knowing how to write. Many of the rural voters will never have held a pen in their hand, argued one official. It is natural in such a tribal society for the village to establish a consensus on who to support. Do such ballot papers count? Remember Florida, and how 'hanging chads' and the U.S. Supreme Court gave George W. Bush the presidency over Al Gore? It's that kind of agony.

Behind the scenes the whispers are that hesitation and delay are because the outcome is excruciatingly close, too close to call. President Hamid Karzai, once set clear for victory, may find first round success ripped from his grasp by the disqualification of votes stuffed into ballot boxes by his supporters. He'll likely win a second round, if it happens, against his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah; but there will have been a loss of dignity, of self-confidence and of an opportunity to stabilise Afghanistan and get on with fighting the Taliban.