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.
Setting the groundwork
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.