DOHA, Qatar — U.S.-Taliban peace talks could start in this Persian Gulf city as early as Sunday. Or the political office that the Taliban opened here last week for that purpose, more than a year and a half after it was first proposed, could be shuttered before negotiations even begin.
“We need to see if we can get back on track,” visiting Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Saturday. “I don’t know if that’s possible or not. If there is not a decision to move forward by the Taliban in short order, then we may have to consider whether or not the office has to be closed.”
Kerry, attending an international conference on Syria at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Qatari capital, spoke just a few floors below the room occupied by Tayeb al-Agha, a senior aide to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and the head of the insurgent negotiating team. There was no indication that their paths crossed.
On Saturday morning, U.S. officials offered to restart the process Sunday. In a response through intermediaries here, the Taliban said it was waiting for word from Quetta, the southern Pakistani city where the Quetta Shura, the Omar-led Taliban leadership, is based. Some hard-liners in the group, they said, were arguing that they should call the whole thing off.
The inaugural negotiating session had initially been expected late last week. It was postponed when the Taliban appeared at Tuesday’s live-broadcast office inauguration under a banner declaring it an outpost of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name under which the Taliban ruled the country until its 2001 overthrow by U.S.-aided Afghan opposition forces.
U.S. officials, who said the parties had agreed that the office would be called a “political bureau of the Afghan Taliban,” expressed shock. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had been persuaded to agree, albeit reluctantly, to the talks — and had received written U.S. guarantees on the name and related matters — was outraged about the Taliban flag and an “Islamic Emirate” plaque on the wall.
The administration spent the rest of Tuesday and much of Wednesday placating Karzai and successfully demanding, through Qatari intermediaries, that the plaque be removed. Inside the office compound, which is in a residential neighborhood near Doha’s zone of luxury hotels, the flagpole had been shortened and was out of sight.
At the end of the week, James R. Dobbins, President Obama’s newly named special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived to head the U.S. negotiating team.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, were encouraged when Taliban spokesman Shaheed Suhail, in Doha, told Radio Free Europe and later the Associated Press on Saturday that the insurgents were untroubled by the Islamic Emirate flap.
“Give a chance to the process. In one day, everything cannot be resolved,” Suhail told the AP. “This is a very secondary thing and not important.”
But U.S. officials were still waiting Saturday night, while Taliban representatives in Quetta argued, for an answer to the offer of a Sunday meeting. If it does not come in time, Dobbins may return to Washington early in the week, they said.
Arrangements for the Doha office were tortured long before last week’s upheaval. They were first discussed at eight informal meetings between Taliban representatives and U.S. officials in late 2011 and early 2012, as part of a series of arrangements that included the exchange of five Afghan Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Berghdahl, the American serviceman held prisoner by the Taliban in Pakistan since 2009.
In January 2012, the Taliban walked out of those talks and then canceled them altogether two months later, charging U.S. bad faith over the terms of the prisoner exchange and demands that the insurgents first issue two public statements — one forswearing any international terrorism and another supporting the Afghan political process.
Near the end of 2012, new, indirect overtures were made. Eventually, after a string of objections from Karzai were at least temporarily overcome, planning began to restart the process. The Taliban, which had long refused to engage in talks with Karzai, agreed it would hold discussions on reconciliation with Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, as well as with the Americans.
Arrangements on what to call the Taliban office and restrictions on what it could be used for — no fundraising, for example — were already in place from the year before. The outlines of the prisoner exchange were set to be revived, and the administration had made a political decision to take the inevitable heat from Congress when it was announced.
Then came Tuesday and the Islamic Emirate.
“It is obvious from just the early churning around the opening of that office that nothing comes easily in this endeavor, and we understand that,” Kerry said Saturday. “And the road ahead will be difficult, no question about it, if there is a road ahead.”