Since then, Karzai has refused to budge. “If the purpose of the [Qatar] office is for peace and stability, then the Afghan government is the main side, and our views have to be respected,” said Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman.
A senior Afghan official put it more bluntly, saying: “The U.S. just wants us to agree to the office without the [memorandum of understanding]. But these are our conditions.”
U.S. role in flux
A frustrated Obama administration increasingly seems to see itself as a mere broker trying to bring two equally unreasonable and suspicious sides to the table.
The Taliban thinks the Americans are trying to lure them into talks that will be turned over to Karzai, another U.S. official said. Karzai “is thinking we’re going to make side deals with the Taliban” that will leave him and his supporters out in the political cold.
“We are genuinely looking for a way to give everybody the political space to move ahead,” the official said. “But it seems like neither side wants to settle.”
Political representatives of the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership headed by Mohammad Omar, took up residence in Qatar in 2011. Since then, they have moved among various luxury hotels there and met with emissaries from Germany, Norway, Japan and elsewhere.
But there have been no direct discussions there with U.S. officials since initial negotiations collapsed a year ago. The end of the talks dashed hopes of Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban members held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Bergdahl, 26, has been held since June 2009, and the Taliban has released several videos showing him in captivity.
The longer-term administration goal had been to establish a venue for talks outside Afghanistan and far from Pakistan’s control of militant movements. Karzai complained about being left out of the mix, and he was assured that the United States was only a facilitator whose ultimate objective was a political settlement negotiated directly between the militants and his government.
Plans would move ahead, U.S. interlocutors had told the militants, as soon as the Taliban issued two public statements — one denouncing international terrorism and another supporting a political process in Afghanistan without a commitment to any particular outcome of that process.
At what turned out to be their last meeting, in January 2012, the Taliban accused the United States of making unilateral changes to the prisoner exchange timetable. In March, the militants issued a formal statement withdrawing from the talks.