The hype over "secret discussions" between the United States and Taliban officials has subsided; the hot topic is vanishing from public view once again.
Nevertheless, Iranian media insist that three high-ranking Taliban leaders have been released - Mullah Khairkhawa, former interior minister; Mullah Noorullah Noori, a former governor; and Mullah Fazl Akhund, the Taliban's chief of army staff - in exchange for an American soldier held by the Taliban.
United States diplomats might have put the cart before the horse in their hurry to get a peace process going before North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders gather for their summit in Chicago in May. They may have made two cardinal mistakes. One, they underestimated Afghan President Hamid Karzai's
political compulsions. Two, the US took it for granted that the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance groups would fall in line since many of them have been co-opted through the 10-year period of the war and their capacity to unite is in doubt.
Karzai has sprung a surprise by insisting that peace talks should be "Afghan-led" - meaning, he expects a "hands-on" role for himself. He has said this before, but this time he means it. He knows that regional opinion strongly disfavors a US-led peace process, and he also anticipates the danger of being left behind as road kill unless he is in driver's seat.
Besides, Karzai is demanding that the US should transfer any Taliban prisoners from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to his custody rather than to Qatar (as apparently sought by the Taliban). He is also raking up a related issue questioning US control of Bagram airbase near Kabul as a detention center.
On Monday, Karzai raised the stakes much higher by demanding that the Taliban must agree to a ceasefire before formal peace negotiations could begin. His spokesman, Emal Faizi, said, "When the talks start, there should be a ceasefire and the violence against the Afghan people should stop." Faizi also said it was too soon to send a delegation from Kabul to Qatar for talks. "The government has no immediate plans for such a trip."
The hardening of Karzai's stance also needs to be understood against the backdrop of growing restiveness on the part of the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups.
On Monday, the alliance stalwarts came out against the Barack Obama administration's secret discussions with the Taliban. These leaders - Ahmed Zia Massoud, brother of late Ahmad Shah Massoud and formerly vice president under Karzai; General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader who leads the Jumbish in northern Afghanistan; Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the Hazara Shi'ite leader from Mazar-i-Sharif who heads the Hezb-e-Wahdat; Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghan intelligence - held talks with a group of four US congressmen - Dona Rohrabacher, Loretta Sanchez, Louie Gohmert and Steve King (all except Sanchez are Republicans) - in Berlin over the weekend and issued a joint statement on Monday.
This is the first time that the leadership of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities has come to a common line of thinking to oppose the US's peace strategy and to present an alternate blueprint of pan-Afghan settlement. In essence, the Northern Alliance is being resuscitated as a political entity.
Their statement attacked the power structure headed by Karzai as dysfunctional, far too centralized and rampantly corrupt and demanded that in the first instance what Afghanistan needed was an inclusive parliamentary form of government "instead of a personality-oriented presidential system", which could optimally represent all ethnic and regional interests.
They also sought a thorough revamping of the country's electoral system from the present single non-transferrable voting system to a "national-accepted variant of the proportional representative system" and the direct election of governors and provincial council leaderships with delegation of powers to create budgets, collect revenue and oversee local policing and administer social sectors.
But, most important, they frontally questioned the US's locus standi to initiate peace talks with the Taliban. Their statement said:
We firmly believe that any negotiation with the Taliban can be acceptable, and therefore effective, [only] if all parties to the conflict are involved in the process. The present form of discussions with the Taliban is flawed, as it excludes anti-Taliban Afghans. It must be recalled that the Taliban extremists and their al-Qaeda supporters were defeated [in 2011] by Afghans resisting extremism with minimal human-embedded support from the United States and international community. The present negotiations with the Taliban fail to take into account the risks, sacrifices and legitimate interests of the Afghans who ended the brutal oppression of all Afghans.
In order to speed the withdrawal of international forces, the participants believe it is essential to strengthen regional and national institutions that are inclusive and represent the concerns of all the communities of Afghanistan. [Emphasis added.]
A challenge to Obama
The Northern Alliance statement challenges the US's monopoly of conflict resolution and Washington's unilateralist estimation that the Taliban are the only group that matters as protagonists on the Afghan chessboard in a peace process.
Its entire approach is to take the "Afghan settlement" from the narrow path of a secretive US-Taliban-Pakistan compromise formula to a transparent, inclusive, broadly-participatory inclusive approach that would not ignore any Afghan interest group, which has genuine mass support, from participation, with strong, elected local leaderships that enjoy delegated powers of local governance.
In sum, it offers a vision for returning Afghanistan to its historical character of a federated system of government that allows a plural society to thrive, but with a representative form of government as a modern-day democracy. Indeed, the Northern Alliance statement implies readiness to reconcile politically with the Taliban, provided they "seize" power through the ballot box rather than the guns supplied from the Pakistani military inventory, among other places.
It is a bold challenge to the United States and Pakistan to live up to their pious homilies.
The alliance's strategy puts enormous pressure on Karzai. He is caught between two contending constituencies. The Northern Alliance leaders are critical of Karzai, but he finds no acceptability with the Taliban, too. Karzai's position becomes precarious if he antagonizes the Northern Alliance groups and turns them hostile. He won't want to put all his eggs in the American basket, either, since the US may find him expendable at some point. Karzai needs time to maneuver and create a new coalition that strengthens his standing.
What may have incensed the Northern Alliance groups partly at least is that, despite the chill in US-Pakistan relations, Washington has kept the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the loop on the Qatar talks, while blithely ignoring them as protagonists. Nonetheless, interestingly, they made no critical reference to Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, Islamabad is sitting tight. It refrains from taking open stance on the proposed talks with the Taliban in Qatar. At the same time, the ISI is on the ball and its chief, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, even paid an overnight visit to Qatar.
Pakistan would draw satisfaction that Washington finally dropped its pre-conditions for talks with the Taliban. Equally, Pakistan would welcome any release of top Taliban figures from Guantanamo. And Pakistan didn't put roadblock when former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (who lives in Peshawar in Pakistan) deputed envoys to Kabul to sound out the US and NATO officials whether he too could be provided a seat at the conference table in Qatar.
However, Pakistan won't proffer an opinion on the prospects of the talks, rather pretending it is all a matter between Taliban leader Mullah Omar who is quartered in Quetta in Pakistan and American officials.
All this is being played against the backdrop of the troubled US-Pakistani relationship. Besides, the Taliban comprise hopelessly fragmented factions and neither Mullah Omar nor the Haqqani clan has yet commented on the proposed talks in Qatar.
Pakistan can rest on its oars that the ISI would be the only party capable of shepherding the Taliban factions to come on a united platform for talks, and the US ultimately has no choice but to knock on its doorstep seeking help.
As the Northern Alliance groups see it, Pakistani strategy is to wait out the period between now and 2014 - the date set for the US troop withdrawal - and then regroup the Taliban and make a bid to capture power in Kabul. Their strong show of unity in Berlin suggests that they will not roll over and give way to an exclusive US-Taliban-Pakistan settlement being imposed on their nation.
Their challenge to Barack Obama is to concede for the Afghan people the very minimum privilege of an Arab Spring so that Islamism can reconcile with democracy - quintessentially, expecting the US to be on the "right side of history". It is not too much to ask for, really.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
* Asia Times Online