The Obama administration expects to move ahead with plans to meet with Taliban representatives in the next few days, despite a still-simmering dispute with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the negotiations that led him Wednesday to suspend separate talks over a key U.S.-Afghan security pact.
Administration officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, spent much of Wednesday scrambling to defuse Karzai’s anger over the Taliban’s news conference on Tuesday, during which the insurgents announced that they would open an office in Qatar, raised their flag and stood under a banner reading the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the name they used when they ruled Afghanistan a decade ago — despite written U.S. promises that such a move would not be allowed.
Kerry telephoned Karzai twice and spoke to government officials in Qatar, and the administration said publicly that Karzai was “justifiably” upset. The Qataris met Karzai’s demands to remove an “Islamic Emirate” plaque that the Taliban had affixed to the wall of the group’s new office and issued a statement saying that the venue was to be known officially as the “political bureau of the Taliban Afghan” in the Persian Gulf state.
By the end of the day, although Karzai remained publicly defiant, the administration appeared confident that the crisis had cooled sufficiently to reschedule the opening session of the U.S.-Taliban talks, which initially had been set for Thursday. The meeting could take place as early as Friday but was likely to be held off until after a Kerry visit to Qatar on Saturday for talks on Syria.
The upheaval was the latest reminder of the vexing policy predicaments that Washington must navigate as it seeks to bring its role in the Afghanistan war to a dignified end over the next year and a half.
Completion of the suspended talks over a bilateral security pact is key to the continuation of the Western support that Afghanistan will need to sustain its security forces after U.S.-led international combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014. U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said it was unlikely that Afghanistan will view a long-term suspension of those talks as being in its interest.
Speaking Wednesday in Berlin as the dispute over the Taliban office unfolded, President Obama acknowledged that “this is going to be a difficult process” but said that the United States remains committed to moving it forward.
“They’ve been fighting for a very long time. There’s enormous mistrust,” he said. “We still believe you have to have a parallel political track to at least look at the prospect of some sort of global reconciliation.”
This week was supposed to mark a turning point in the 12-year-old conflict in Afghanistan. Hours before the office announcement Tuesday, amid cheers in Kabul and in Washington, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen traveled to Afghanistan to announce that Afghan security officials were taking the lead on combat missions in all parts of the country.
That night, four U.S. service members were killed in an attack in eastern Afghanistan that the Taliban said was designed to demonstrate the group’s ongoing fight against American troops.
“The occupying America wants to have long-term bases in Afghanistan, but the mujahideen of the Islamic emirate from the other side also have taken all the preparations that will be effective for the destruction of America’s nests,” the group said in a statement.
In a statement Wednesday morning, Karzai’s government said, “The messages of continuation of war and bloodshed sent simultaneously with the opening of the office was fully contrary to the peace seeking spirit of the government.” It added that the Taliban is working too closely with “foreigners.”
American and Afghan officials had been taken aback by the Taliban’s performance at the Qatar news conference, which Afghan leaders viewed as a signal that the peace talks could result in the Taliban returning to power.
“Unfortunately, the manner that the office was announced, including the title given to the office and the imagery on display, were all in breach of the written assurances we received from the U.S. government,” a senior Afghan official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the Karzai government’s position.
The United States believes that thousands of military trainers and support troops are needed for a number of years to ensure the viability of the U.S.-trained and -funded Afghan security forces after 2014, but both countries want a written accord that covers the terms of the personnel’s presence.
U.S. officials arriving in Doha, the Qatari capital, for the talks with the Taliban declined to comment on the uproar, referring to Obama’s statement.
Officials expect the first session of talks to consist only of an exchange of agendas that are unlikely to overlap. The United States wants an end to violence in Afghanistan, a complete Taliban break with al-Qaeda and Taliban recognition of the Afghan constitution. The Taliban wants all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan immediately.
Once those formalities are concluded, U.S. officials expect to get down to discussing an exchange of detainees, including five Taliban members held at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who has been held since 2009 by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which is allied with the Taliban.
Agreement on the exchange had been reached in late 2011, before the Taliban walked out of an initial series of informal meetings in January 2012, accusing the United States of bad faith. The two sides have not met since.
Although the Americans hope to discuss a Taliban break with al-Qaeda, they intend to turn over all talks about internal Afghan affairs to the Karzai government.
The Taliban has said that it will not negotiate with Karzai, but as part of the deal to open the Qatar office, it said publicly that it was willing to meet and talk with other Afghans.
Assuming that the talks go forward, a lower-level U.S. negotiating team will remain indefinitely in Doha for regular sessions.
But the Taliban attack on Bagram air base and its pledge of more bloodshed could pose new political challenges to any serious U.S. involvement in peace talks.
Even if the Taliban negotiates in good faith, Afghan observers warn that the group remains splintered, with some factions unlikely to voluntarily lay down arms. U.S. military commanders also have said that they would like to continue to assist the Afghan army in counterinsurgency efforts.
“The opening of the office will not change the nature of the war, at least not until anything substantial happens in terms of talks,” said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the nonprofit Afghanistan Analysts Network. “Both sides — the U.S. and the Taliban — are quite clear that this will not affect their operations: They will talk and fight. We might even see an acceleration of attacks.”
Craig and Londoño reported from Kabul. Scott Wilson in Berlin, William Booth in Doha and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.