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Taliban And Hamid Karzai Compete Over Who Can Snub The Americans

After the Qoran burnings, the killing spree by an American sergeant - and its imminent withdrawal, the US has few friends in Afghanistan.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 3/16/2012, 4:48 AM

Panetta with Karzai
Panetta with Karzai
Reuters

Once President Barack Obama informed a war weary American public that the United States would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, America's stock in Afghanistan took a dive.

It made more sense to deal with permanent fixtures in the region such as Pakistan, India or Iran, rather than the "here today, gone tomorrow" Americans, regardless of the prodigious blood and treasure they had invested in the remote country.

With the accidental burning of the Korans and the murder of 16 Afghanis this week by an American sergeant, the depreciation has become a rout. The Taliban and American's presumed ally, Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, competed over who could snub the Americans more tellingly.

The Taliban movement announced that it was suspending its Qatar-based dialogue with the United States, while Karzai called for a NATO pullback to major urban bases and vacating the countryside.

The talks with the Taliban represented an American attempt to secure a negotiated solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and also an honorable closure for American involvement in the country.

One of the carrots that the Americans held out to the Taliban was a transfer of high level Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo to Qatar.

Now, the Taliban apparently feel that they have nothing to gain from the negotiations. As they refer to Karzai as an American stooge who does nothing without American approval, they wanted to avoid any appearance of holding hands with the Americans (particularly as the Americans may now move up their withdrawal by a year to 2013). The Americans and Taliban could not agree on the status of the Guantanamo prisoners. The Americans wanted their situation to be as close to a prison as possible, while the Taliban wanted hotel status.

In view of the deteriorating situation, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a one-day visit to Afghanistan, where he claimed to have had "very good discussions" with the Karzai government. Panetta claimed that the US effort against the Taliban had made progress “We are on the right path. I am absolutely convinced of that. But the key is to stay on that path.”

Panetta's boss has intimated that this may be  impossible.

Amid the bad news from Afghanistan, there was one bright spot: Russia hinted that it may allow NATO the use of a Russian airbase to ferry in non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan. Some observers had predicted a placatory gesture from Vladimir Putin towards the West after his recently concluded presidential campaign incorporated strident anti-western and particularly anti-American themes.

The Russian leadership has stated quite openly that it prefers having Obama in the White House for 4 more years and this was a way to help him.

It is also worth remembering that Russia has a vested interest in NATO's presence in Afghanistan. The Russians are afraid that following the withdrawal, Afghanistan could become a center of Islamic extremism that would filter back into the Russian Federation and particularly the Muslim minorities in the country.

Additionally, Afghanistan is a major source of drugs that find their way into Russia. Without the Western presence Russia will be even more exposed to Islamic militants and drug runners.