KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that previously unscheduled peace talks between the Taliban and the United States in Pakistan risk engulfing the country in regional rivalries.
In an interview with The Associated Press in the capital Kabul, Karzai worried that the accelerated peace process was being hijacked by competing territorial interests in Afghanistan, even as the country's neighbors and powerful Persian Gulf states jockey for influence after U.S. troops are gone.
The talks are aimed at finding a negotiated end to Afghanistan's destructive 17-year war — America's longest.
Previously scheduled talks are slated for Feb. 25 in Qatar. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are Gulf enemies and the Pakistan meeting on Monday will be held as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wraps up a two-day visit to Islamabad.
"We don't want the peace process to become hostage to competing powers for influence in Afghanistan or over the process," said Karzai. "No. We have suffered because of that and we don't want that."
Karzai led a delegation of prominent Afghans from Kabul, including former politicians and tribal elders, to a significant first round of talks with the Taliban last week in Moscow. The meeting was sharply criticized by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who said they would have been better suited to Saudi Arabia, repeating his longstanding demand that the Taliban talk directly to his government.
Karzai said the Taliban are ready to talk to the government, but as part of a larger collection of Afghan representatives, adding that it "eventually will lead to direct talks with the Afghan government as the executive arm of the country."
The former president urged Ghani to show flexibility.
"Keeping this great great desire ... to bring an end to the bloodshed of the Afghan people ... I think it is time for the government to reconsider their position and to try to find solutions," Karzai said. "For the sake of peace we must be flexible, we must find ways out and that's my advice to the government."
Karzai also warned Washington and its peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad against leveraging Afghanistan and the peace process against its own rivals China and Russia and handing off influence over Afghanistan to neighbor Pakistan.
Karzai said he is concerned that Monday's meeting in Pakistan could be the first step down a slippery slope to the past when Pakistan wielded influence over his country.
"We don't want Afghanistan to be back under the influence of Pakistan under the name of the peace process and clearly I have told the Americans that we see a difference between peace for Afghanistan and the United States making a deal with Pakistan on Afghanistan," he said. "The danger is the repetition of the past misery for Afghanistan, support to extremism, support to radicalism, support to terrorism."
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries to recognize the Taliban government that was ousted by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Yet in an effort to find an end to the country's lengthy war, the United States last year acquiesced to the Taliban's longstanding demand for direct talks. As Washington's envoy, Khalilzad focused talks on U.S. troop withdrawal and guarantees that Afghan territory would not again be used to threaten America.
Karzai, however, warned against U.S. anti-terrorism activity to verify and enforce Taliban promises or track down suspected terrorists following a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Previously, Khalilzad said the U.S. would not take the Taliban at their word alone but would verify that Afghanistan was not harboring terrorists that could attack the U.S. He did not offer specifics.
Karzai, however, said U.S. special forces who are not directly controlled and approved by a larger Afghan council of elders would not be welcome in a post U.S. Afghanistan.
"We don't want any anti-terrorism U.S. activity in Afghanistan that leads to them going to Afghan homes and bombing Afghan villages," said Karzai, whose final years in power were characterized by bitter criticism of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. He refused to sign a bilateral security agreement, which Ghani, his successor signed.
"If an anti-terrorism force means the continuation of the current U.S. military policy in Afghanistan. No," Karzai said.
The cacophony of competing interests highlights the complexity of finding a way out for Afghanistan.
Andrew Wilder, vice president of Asia Programs at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said "there is now a clear recognition of the need to use our troop presence as political leverage in a negotiation to get a political settlement amongst Afghanistan's major political factions, in exchange for accepting the major Taliban demand that foreign forces withdraw."
The withdrawal of U.S. troops without an agreement would be disastrous, he said.
"The big fear remains that we'll wake up to a tweet that U.S. troops will be withdrawn unilaterally, rather than in the context of a peace agreement, and that Afghanistan will descend again back into the anarchic days of the early 1990s," he said.