Keep Karzai in the Loop

The United States seems poised to begin peace talks with the Taliban, and that worries Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Last week Karzai’s chief of staff declared that his government must be involved in negotiations and would oppose any secret deal between the Taliban and the Americans.
It is easy to understand Karzai’s desire to be part of any negotiated settlement of the conflict in his country, but what about the U.S. interest? Might secret, backdoor negotiations with the Taliban be useful for the United States?
The experience of an earlier war may shed light on this question. Forty years ago the United States was trying to end the long and unpopular war in Vietnam. Although the conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan are very different, one aspect of the Paris Peace Talks at the end of the Vietnam War is similar to the problem facing American negotiators today: how to work with a sometimes-undependable ally.
The Paris Peace Talks opened during the last months of the Lyndon Johnson administration but produced very little in their initial stages. It was not until secret negotiations began between Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho that any progress was made. At the start of these secret negotiations, President Richard Nixon promised South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that he would not accept proposals offered from the North and would keep South Vietnamese officials updated on major developments.
While promising to keep Thieu informed, Nixon and Kissinger deliberately left him in the dark over the discussions that followed. In October of 1972 U.S. diplomats believed they had a firm settlement with North Vietnam, but when Thieu was finally shown the agreement, he felt presented with a fait accompli and refused to consent.
Believing that he had been slighted during the peace process and that the United States had made too many concessions, Thieu sought to demonstrate that he was not an American puppet. He took to the airwaves in Saigon and promised that he would never agree to any accord that threatened South Vietnam’s sovereignty. Thieu’s public address angered leaders in Hanoi, who had thought a final agreement was at hand.
Eventually the South Vietnamese leader agreed to a deal, but only after the American Christmas bombings of 1972 had laid waste to Hanoi and Nixon had given his promise to use further air power to deter any North Vietnamese aggression.
Today, as the United States seeks discussions with the Taliban, Hamid Karzai finds himself in a precarious position. It is unlikely that his security forces could keep the peace in Afghanistan on their own, yet NATO troops are readying to leave by 2014. That reality may cause Karzai to be more hospitable to American efforts at the negotiating table. On the other hand, Karzai’s weakness could also lead him to obstruct or delay peace talks, especially if he perceives that American plans would enable the Taliban to challenge his power.
The key for U.S. policymakers, if they wish to avoid a repeat of the problems that occurred during the Paris Peace Talks, is to keep Karzai in the loop. While the Afghan President has not always been viewed as a reliable ally, he must play a significant role in the peace process. If he is marginalized, as Thieu was, his reaction to any agreement may be to play the role of spoiler.
Earning Karzai’s approval, however, will not be easy. Just as Nguyen Van Thieu’s vision of a peace settlement in Vietnam never matched up with Nixon and Kissinger’s, Karzai’s picture of an agreement in Afghanistan will certainly not coincide entirely with that of the United States. Yet as American diplomats prepare for a long and arduous process, they should keep in mind that negotiating with an ally is often more difficult than talking with an enemy.

Matt Jacobs is a Ph.D. student studying diplomatic history at Ohio University.