After Karzai: exploiting the weakness within

President Hamid Karzai is due to step down as Afghanistan’s head of state a few months before NATO troops’ scheduled withdrawal from the Southwest Asian nation in late 2014. Karzai is the only leader the post-Taliban Afghan state has had, and his exit raises serious questions about the stability of the country beyond 2014. More importantly, the end of the Karzai presidency is complicating negotiations with the Taliban – and those weren’t progressing well to begin with.

In an interview published recently by the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Karzai said the leader of the Afghan jihadist movement, Mullah Mohammad Omar, could run for president in elections due to take place early next year. Responding to a question about whether the elusive Taliban leader should seek the presidency, Karzai said that Afghans could have the opportunity to vote for or against him, and he went on to say that the Afghan constitution is valid for all Afghans and the Taliban should also benefit from it.

President Karzai’s statement points to the core problem in the ongoing negotiations. Both the Taliban and their opponents know that an agreement will entail a power-sharing formula. Each side, however, has a different view of what a negotiated settlement will look like.

The United States and the Afghan government want to see the Taliban join the current political system. The Taliban know they will never reclaim their emirate, a single-party state established through military conquest. The combination of factors that allowed the Taliban to come to power through force no longer exists. That said, they have not been waging an insurgency for more than ten years only to gain a handful of Cabinet positions in the current set-up.

The Taliban want a far greater share of power in the political system, while their opponents are negotiating to limit the extent of the Taliban’s political comeback. So the question is whether there is a way to reconcile the expectations of both sides.

What would constitute the middle ground between the Islamic polity that the Taliban desire and the existing Western-style state? Karzai’s rhetoric aside, Mullah Omar is not interested in simply replacing the current president. Instead, the Taliban chief wants to be a kingmaker who also enjoys religious oversight over the post-NATO political order. Washington is unlikely to agree to such an arrangement, but Karzai’s impending departure weakens the existing system from within.

Will Karzai’s successor be able to maintain the stability of the Afghan state so that it can negotiate with the Taliban? Will the Afghan military be able to deal with the jihadist movement in the event that an agreement is not clinched before NATO forces depart? The uncertainty over the future of the Afghan state is why the Taliban and their historic rivals, the old Northern Alliance, have been in direct communication with each other.

The Taliban have never really negotiated with the Karzai regime seriously. And now that the Afghan state is in trouble from within, the jihadist movement feels it has a good chance of changing it via negotiations. At the very least, it gives them an advantage in negotiations with the United States.