Our cranky man in Kabul

No sooner had the U.S. announced that it would reopen long-stalled peace negotiations with the Taliban this week than Afghan President Hamid Karzai rushed to throw cold water on the idea. Mind you, the mercurial Mr. Karzai had been on board with the American plan as recently as the day before. But he suddenly changed his mind after the Taliban opened a political office in Qatar, where the talks are scheduled to take place. It seems that the office, with the group's banner flying outside, made it look too much as if the Taliban were a legitimate government in exile rather than a lawless insurgency.

So in a show of pique, Mr. Karzai declared his government would never negotiate with the Taliban unless the talks were moved to Kabul. Then, for good measure, he added that the U.S. could forget about any arrangement that would allow it to maintain a presence in the country after the withdrawal of American and NATO combat forces in 2014. To add insult to injury, he made his announcement on the same day that NATO formally turned over to Afghan security forces the responsibility for protecting the last areas of the country under its control from insurgent attacks.


Mr. Karzai's statements were particularly galling given that he and his government were fully aware of the U.S. intention to include them in the talks at the earliest possible moment. And his own top officials recognize that the only path to lasting peace in the country lies through a negotiated settlement by which the Taliban agree to break with al-Qaida and renounce violence. But after so many years aboard the roller-coaster of his country's military and diplomatic relations with its U.S. and European allies, Mr. Karzai has developed a masterful talent for cutting off his nose to spite his face.

The Afghan leader clearly is attempting to play on American anxieties about Afghanistan's future after the bulk of its combat troops withdraw next year — and specifically to U.S. frustration over its inability to secure a similar long-term presence in Iraq. There, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki found it in his interest to curry favor with Shiite supporters by openly thwarting American plans to maintain a scaled-down military presence in place to help stabilize the country. The result was a dangerous surge in sectarian violence there after all U.S. forces packed up and left at the end of 2011.


To get his way, Mr. Karzai is risking allowing the country to lapse into chaos — as it surely would if there's no provision for a long-term U.S. security presence in Afghanistan after 2014. He apparently is willing to sacrifice the future of Afghanistan rather than see the Taliban recognized as a legitimate political force that might challenge his rule at the polls.

Granted, no one should have any illusions that the Taliban are a normal political party or that they will ever support the basic values and principles of democracy — however imperfectly those values and principles are embodied in the government Mr. Karzai leads. One of the purposes of the talks is for the U.S. to determine whether the Taliban can even be counted on to negotiate in good faith, let alone stick to any agreement that might be reached. The insurgents' brutal, bloody rule and human rights violations against women and ethnic and religious minorities the last time they were in power may well justify Mr. Karzai's suspicion that the Taliban representatives in Qatar are wolves in sheep's clothing.

Commenting on the prospect of talks with the Taliban on Tuesday, Mr. Obama warned that the meetings in Qatar represented "the very early stages" of what might be a very long process and that there likely would be "bumps in the road" before a deal was reached. But he probably didn't anticipate the first jolt would come so soon — and not from Taliban intransigence but from his own querulous ally.

Mr. Karzai can be notoriously thin-skinned, but the monkey wrench he is attempting to hurl into the delicate diplomatic machinery aimed at ending the conflict now represents a new level of churlishness as well as a serious disconnect from realities on the ground.

Still, Mr. Obama is right to explore the opportunity represented by the Taliban's apparent willingness to talk peace. One way or another, U.S. and NATO forces are going to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Mr. Obama should be doing everything possible to ensure that when they do, their sacrifices there will not have been in vain.