This week offered more evidence that the militant group and its would-be Afghan and American interlocutors have sharply different visions for the Qatar office, which formally opened Tuesday. The ribbon-cutting turned into a debacle for the United States, which scrambled to defuse the Afghan government’s outrage over the Taliban’s display of its flag and a banner reading the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the country’s name during the Taliban rule of the 1990s.
The diplomatic row between Washington and Kabul froze negotiations on a security agreement that could allow U.S. troops to stay here past 2014. Meetings between U.S. and Taliban officials that were scheduled for Thursday were postponed, setting an awkward tone for Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s visit to Qatar this week to discuss the Syrian conflict. And questions lingered about what the group hopes to accomplish in Doha.
An end to discretion
Until this week, Taliban envoys in Doha led a shadowy existence, living mostly in luxury hotels under close surveillance of the Qatari government. They held secret meetings with diplomats from Germany, Norway and Japan, among other countries.
Their discretion came to an end this month, however, with a Taliban announcement that its emissaries traveled from Doha to Tehran at the invitation of the Iranian government.
The trip was not the first contact between Shiite-led Tehran and the Sunni Taliban, which have a long history of mistrust and animosity, partly because of clashing religious ideologies. But it marked the most high-profile meeting between two stakeholders in the Afghanistan conflict that analysts say might overlook sectarian differences in pursuit of common goals: undermining the United States, a shared nemesis, and getting the American military to leave the region for good once NATO’s mandate in Afghanistan expires at the end of next year.
“You could look at this trip as the beginning of serious regional diplomacy that is going completely around us,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official involved in Afghanistan policy who is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We think we’re going to shape the post-2014 era with military support, but there are other games happening here, and the Taliban are positioning themselves.”
Iran’s ambition for a greater role in Afghanistan unsettles the United States, which came to see Tehran as a major spoiler in the Iraq war. U.S. officials accused Iran of fueling violence in Iraq by deploying militias to fight American troops and have accused Tehran of aiding the Taliban militarily in a more limited way.