GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to Afghanistan, and another potential snag, as the U.S. struggles to reach a security deal with President Hamid Karzai.
Presidential campaign season has begun in earnest in Kabul, with banners and billboards touting candidates for the April 5 election. One issue looms especially large over it all: whether to sign a security agreement allowing some U.S. and NATO troops to remain beyond the end of this year, mainly in a training capacity.
President Hamid Karzai has balked at signing the agreement, insisting he will leave it to his successor.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI, Afghanistan (through interpreter): Afghanistan will never sign the security agreement under pressure. No pressure, no threat, no psychological operation against our people can force us to sign the security agreement. If they want to leave, they should leave today.GWEN IFILL: Now, The New York Times reports, and a Karzai spokesman confirms, the Afghan president has begun secret peace talks with the Taliban. The spokesman says the two sides met in Dubai three weeks ago. And he notes relations with the Taliban have improved since Karzai refused to sign the security pact.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney didn’t address the report of peace talks. Instead, he warned again time is running short.
JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: This agreement was negotiated after a prolonged process, a good-faith process, and endorsed by the Afghan elders represented by the loya jirga, and it ought to be signed.
GWEN IFILL: Meanwhile, President Obama met this afternoon with his top military commanders to discuss the future of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Joining me now is one of the reporters who wrote that New York Times story, Matthew Rosenberg.
Why is Hamid Karzai meeting with the Taliban?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG, The New York Times: He wants to make peace. And I think Americans want to make peace, too. Everybody does. Everybody — if they could create a peace deal with the Taliban, everybody would be overjoyed about this.
The question is how and are the Taliban really interested?
GWEN IFILL: Well, when you say peace, what we have heard all along is that this security agreement which we have been trying to get them to sign, that that’s the ingredient for peace. Is this a separate side deal that he’s trying to cut?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: I think that’s what he thought it was. He thought there was this contact or he had this opportunity, and then he would kind of push off the Americans.
I think the American telling of this, and to a lot of other Afghans as well, they would say, well, what’s the Taliban’s incentive? If the Americans get up and leave, they take all their troops and all their money, why would they make peace now?
GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s — I guess that’s my question. What would peace look like with the Taliban?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: It’s an incredibly good question.
And I think the Americans and the Afghan government have all said they need to accept the Afghan government, they need to come into the system, accept the constitution, accept the rights that have been granted to a variety of people who didn’t really have them under the Taliban.
Now, accepting that constitution can be mean a lot of things. And that can be amended and that can be changed, but it’s not going to look like a separate Taliban state somewhere in the country.
GWEN IFILL: Right. So the secret meetings that he has been conducting, is that why he’s been so hesitant to sign the security agreement with the U.S. and its allies?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: It certainly looks like one of the — one of the main factors there, that he thought he had something else going on here, so what does he need the U.S. for?
The problem here is that the Americans would be more than happy if he could go out and cut his own deal and make peace. Everybody would be pleased. Everybody could go home. It’s that the behavior engendered by his idea, his thought that he had peace talks going, between going after us with fake evidence of — of war crimes, trying to release more Taliban from prison, a lot of kind of deeper issues in that relationship really came out in ways that I think everybody has found pretty unhelpful.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
Who do we think initiated the contact, made the first olive branch, as it were?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: It’s hard to say. Most of our sources said it came from the Taliban, but also coming from the Taliban is a hard thing to judge.
GWEN IFILL: I was going to say, what is — who is that?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: That’s always been the issue, which is, how do you find that person who is connected back to Mullah Omar? You don’t know where he is.
The Americans and the Germans developed one kind of channel, but it kind of fell apart, partly because of Karzai’s objections back in, I guess it was June. And now it’s like, you know, how serious was this entreaty? Were they just trying to string him along? It certainly looks that way, because it’s gone nowhere.
GWEN IFILL: It’s gone nowhere.
What would he want from them? Just an agreement to what?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: I think he wants — he has this grand idea that they’re brothers, they’re Afghans like him and they can all be brought back together and they can all be brought in peacefully.
It sometimes can be a little — it can come across as sometimes naive.
GWEN IFILL: This isn’t the first time. Maybe this was naive as well. But this isn’t the first time there have been efforts to reach out to the Taliban. American diplomats have tried to do the same thing, haven’t they?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: They have.
And, you know, they came very close. I mean, they have been in touch with people who they believed and had evidence were doing this with the blessing of Mullah Omar. It just hasn’t gone anywhere. The Taliban have not seemed particularly willing to sit down and talk peace. They haven’t seen it in their interests at this point.
GWEN IFILL: So, let’s look at where things stand right now. Right now, there is an effort that has been made by him on this as a side deal to reach out to the Taliban. There’s the effort to get him to sign the security agreement in advance of the elections, which is looking less and less likely.
Is there a renewed pressure from the U.S. or from someone else to try to get that back on track?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: I think there is.
The pressure from the U.S. has been pretty enormous, but it’s also every week there seems to be a new deadline. Like, this is the week it has to get done or this is the month. And then the deadline slips. So, in Karzai’s — and I think most of the Afghan government, they see the U.S. saying sign now or lose it, and then they don’t sign now and they don’t lose it.
GWEN IFILL: We just saw Karzai say, well, just take it away if you’re going to take our money away, if you’re going to take our deal away.
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: But that hasn’t quite happened.
What are the options available or on the table now for the U.S. to act in all of this or to get Karzai off the dime?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: I mean, it’s a tough spot for the U.S., because I think they really don’t want to just walk away. You don’t want a repeat of what’s happening in Iraq right now.
On the other hand, you know, you need to have a partner there, and right now they don’t feel they do have a partner. So, what do you do?
GWEN IFILL: Is the U.S. in the position to withhold — there’s billions of dollars of aid on the table. Is that something that perhaps Congress is pressuring U.S. diplomats to do?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: There’s definitely pressure in Congress when it comes to the economic aid. The military aid, everybody is a little more sacrosanct.
But Afghanistan is entirely dependent on foreign aid. This isn’t Iraq, where money just comes out of the ground. They have no money. If we take away the aid, that country will collapse. There’s just no way to — it cannot support itself.
GWEN IFILL: So there are not a lot of options right now?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Not many.
GWEN IFILL: And everybody’s just waiting for the elections to roll out.
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Pretty much.
GWEN IFILL: Matthew Rosenberg of The New York Times, thanks a lot.
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Thank you.