KABUL – A recently floated U.S. draft for a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government is the best chance to accelerate stalled peace talks between the country's warring sides, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in an interview Thursday.
After decades of war and conflict, the Afghans themselves “are in a hurry for peace” and eager to start to heal their nation, Karzai told The Associated Press.
Frustrated by escalating violence and the slow pace of negotiations that have been underway in Qatar since last year, Washington handed both sides in the protracted conflict a proposal for peace, a copy of which the AP obtained earlier this week.
Karzai, considered a key player in the talks going forward, told the AP that the proposed U.S. peace plan contains important provisions that could help bring peace to Afghanistan — with some revisions by both sides.
Despite Karzai's optimistic assessment, the Washington plan could encounter serious opposition from President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban. Ghani opposes the idea of an interim government as part of a transition period, viewing it as an attempt to diminish his power. Some of Taliban practices, particularly on the public role of women and demands for an Islamic system, may run contrary to ideas put forward by the United States.
Karzai, who served as Afghan's president from 2001 to 2014, does not have a formal role in the negotiations but is seen as an important player. He is consulted routinely by Washington's peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and has been instrumental in bringing political opponents to the table.
Karzai said the U.S. proposal can shepherd a war-weary nation to elections; it protects rights of women and minorities, offers a way to achieve constitutional reform and proffers an interim administration.
The U.S. has already tried to convey the need for quick action to the negotiators.
In a letter to Ghani that accompanied the proposal, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it is urgent Afghanistan's warring sides find a peaceful end to a war that has gone on for nearly 20 years and cost the U.S. nearly $1 trillion.
Karzai said that Afghans themselves "are in a hurry for peace.”
“Peace is such a deep, deep, deeply desired wish of the Afghan people,” said Karzai. “You can’t imagine how much of a hurry we are in to reach peace for us and for our younger ones.”
He expressed hope that the U.S. proposal could serve as a catalyst for both sides to make peace perhaps even before May 1 — the deadline for a final U.S. troop withdrawal under a U.S.-Taliban deal reached a year ago. For now, the talks in Qatar appear hopelessly stalled, with the negotiators still arguing over the agenda. Karzai did not elaborate on his cause for optimism.
Meanwhile, Washington is still reviewing the Taliban deal with the Trump administration, signed on Feb. 29, 2020. Blinken said in his letter to Ghani that a withdrawal of U.S. troops by May 1 was still on the table.
Karzai said he was against the May 1 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, warning it would create chaos. He said it was in both Washington's and Kabul's interest to have a responsible exit.
“It’s extremely important for the United States and the U.S allies and those who (have been) involved in the past 20 years in Afghanistan to be responsible, to do things that will bring lasting peace,” he said. “So a responsible exit or a responsible stay in a peaceful Afghanistan are both issues that we should consider very carefully.”
The Taliban have until now rejected the idea of international forces staying in Afghanistan after May 1, but Karzai said they may be convinced to accept a modified U.S. presence in a peaceful Afghanistan.
Karzai said Afghanistan's National Reconciliation Council, of which he is a member, will meet on Sunday. The council, headed by Abdullah Abdullah, will review the U.S. proposal and respond with proposed revisions in coming days. The council leadership is the final arbiter on what the government will accept in a peace agreement.
Ghani has so far been silent about Blinken's letter and the U.S. proposal. His first vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, said earlier this week that the president was unmoved by the sternly worded letter and that he has not dropped demands that the Taliban either join his government or that elections be held for a new government.
Ghani has been steadfast in opposing an interim government.
Karzai said that if Ghani's government could bring the warring groups together "we would support it," but he said he hasn't been able to and warned against sacrificing an opportunity for peace to hold on to power.
A series of international gatherings are in the works to jumpstart the peace talks — Russia has invited Ghani, the Taliban, regional players and the U.S. to a meeting in Moscow next week.
Blinken has proposed that the United Nations convene an international conference on Afghanistan within weeks, which would include foreign ministers of Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and the U.S.
There will also be a conference in Turkey, where Blinken has said he expects to see a peace agreement finalized.
Karzai said a peaceful Afghanistan is of interest to all its neighbors but particularly Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership has been headquartered and with whom Afghanistan has had a troubled relationship even as Pakistan still hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees.