WASHINGTON — The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan had planned to use his latest foray to the region to build Afghan government support for the nascent U.S. effort to kindle peace talks with the Taliban.
Instead, Ambassador Marc Grossman found himself last week putting out a fire ignited by a meeting between four U.S. Congress members and Afghan opposition leaders in Germany. At that meeting, the American lawmakers discussed constitutional reforms that would devolve power from Afghanistan's central government to the provinces — triggering suspicions that the United States was secretly plotting to partition Afghanistan along ethnic lines.
The U.S. Embassy said there was no such plan, and immediately denounced the reports. But the damage had been done.
Karzai was "incredibly angry," said a former Afghan official who maintains close contact with the presidential palace and who, like others interviewed by McClatchy, requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. Karzai's ire was on display in a Jan. 21 speech to Parliament in which he denounced "foreigners" for using Afghanistan "to do their political experiments."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The episode dealt a setback to the U.S. bid to launch peace talks, which began with the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar earlier this month. It also reinforced just how difficult it will be for the Obama administration to broker a settlement that's robust enough to allow U.S. and allied combat troops to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 as planned.
The Berlin meeting "played a very damaging role, convincing Karzai for a time that the (United States) had a secret plan to partition Afghanistan," said a U.S. official. "As a result, Karzai did not want to support a Taliban office in Qatar."
U.S. officials believe that Grossman mollified Karzai — who already was upset over his government's exclusion from year-long secret U.S.-Taliban contacts — by persuading the Afghan leader that the Obama administration had nothing to do with the meeting in Berlin.
At a Jan. 21 news conference, Grossman affirmed that a peace deal could only be negotiated by Afghans, and that the Taliban must unequivocally state their opposition to international terrorism and support for the peace process before the Qatar office could open.
Yet Afghan suspicions persisted after Grossman left Kabul, forcing U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker three days later to issue another, more forceful public denial. Crocker called the partition rumors "lies that dishonor the sacrifice of more than 1,800 American service members who have died in the cause of a unified Afghanistan."
The problem that Grossman encountered is deep differences between Karzai — who, like most of the Taliban, is from Afghanistan's main Pashtun ethnic group — and leaders of the ethnic minorities who dominated the former Northern Alliance. That guerrilla force defeated the Taliban in 2001 with the aid of U.S. airpower, and now heads Karzai's political opposition.
Karzai and other Afghans were outraged by a joint statement issued by the participants in the Jan. 8 Berlin meeting that denounced the centralization of power in Kabul as the cause of "massive corruption, disenfranchisement of a large segment of the Afghan people, obstacles to economic development, massive abuses of power, increasing political instability, poor governance and a vast undermining of law and order."
The participants, who included Karzai's former intelligence chief and a notorious Uzbek warlord, urged constitutional reforms to create a federal system that would disperse power to the provinces. Many Afghans, however, believe that proposal eventually would lead to the partition of Afghanistan between the minority-dominated north and the mostly Pashtun south.
Karzai, long distrustful of U.S. intentions, came to suspect Obama administration involvement in the Berlin meeting.
Karzai thought there was "an official hand behind it, maybe not Obama, but others and that people are backing different horses," said the former Afghan official.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who led the delegation of House members, denied that the group seeks partition. However, he argued in a phone interview that the United States had "foisted ... one of the most centralized government structures that exist anywhere in the world" on "one of the most decentralized cultures."
"We need to see if there is an alternative," Rohrabacher said. "Instead what we are getting is an attempt to obfuscate the debate and to attack the motives of the people involved, but also to characterize the nature of the disagreement in a totally disingenuous way."
The U.S. delegation also included Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, Steve King, R-Iowa, and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif.
Karzai and his aides may have had good reason to suspect the meeting, the second of its kind organized in Berlin since July 2010 by Rohrabacher, who has been deeply involved with Afghan policy since working as an aide to President Ronald Reagan.
Rohrabacher and Gohmert want the United States to rearm and re-forge the Northern Alliance into a village militia network to fight the Taliban-led insurgency. Such an organization, however, also could become a rival force to the Afghan National Army in northern areas dominated by the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic minorities.
Moreover, many former Northern Alliance leaders and commanders oppose a peace deal with the Taliban that would cede shares of power to the militant Islamic movement. The Northern Alliance fought the Taliban in a 1994-2001 civil war that was interrupted by the U.S. invasion.
"Without consulting the government or most of the people of Afghanistan, they want to bring federalism, decentralism, to bring back warlordism, and to bring back different factions in different parts of the country," said Mir Ahmad Joyenda, a former Afghan parliamentarian with the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank in Kabul.
Joyenda, however, also said that Karzai and the United States should heed the former Northern Alliance leaders' concerns about a peace deal.
"The Northern Alliance wanted to make a political maneuver" in Berlin, he said, to show that 'We are strong enough to oppose things without any consultation with us.'"
(McClatchy special correspondents Jon Stephenson and Ali Safi contributed to this article from Kabul, Afghanistan.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.