KABUL — Two weeks after the prospect of peace talks with the Taliban dramatically imploded, the insurgent group’s office in Qatar remains an apt symbol for Afghanistan’s diplomatic stalemate. Behind high walls in residential Doha, the office hasn’t been opened for negotiations, and it hasn’t been forced to close.
For now, it is a would-be negotiations center — years in the making — that conducts no negotiations. Americans and Afghans are unsure whether it ever will. But closing it could preclude a political solution to the 11-year-long war in Afghanistan.
With the stakes so high, neither U.S. nor Afghan officials are willing to pull the plug on the Doha talks, even though recent Taliban statements and actions offer little reason for optimism.
The Taliban shocked U.S. and Afghan representatives when it displayed the organization’s flag during its first news conference in the Qatar office and spoke in front of a banner reading the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of its regime when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
U.S. officials said the parties had agreed that the office would be called a “political bureau of the Afghan Taliban.” The Kabul government considered the banner and flag an affront to its legitimacy.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai responded by not only refusing to participate in any talks with the Taliban, but also by halting negotiations with the United States over a long-term security agreement. Those talks remain on hold, but Karzai appears to have marginally cooled off, claiming to have made contact with Taliban leaders in Pakistan who offered a more positive stance toward peace talks than the representatives in Doha.
“A number of Taliban leaders contacted the president and showed their dissatisfaction about the Qatar office,” said Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi. “They said foreign hands are behind the office and that they do not represent us.”
At a news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron last week, Karzai said: “A window of opportunity is open, and I will urge all of those who renounce violence, who respect the constitution, who want to have a voice in the future prosperity of this country to seize that opportunity.”
Karzai said in a statement Thursday that he won’t resume security talks with the United States until his government’s negotiators meet with the Taliban — a prospect that has raised concerns about the U.S. ability to maintain an enduring presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
“The idea of making a condition on the bilateral agreement when the Taliban decide to meet with the High Peace Council puts way too much power in [the Taliban’s] hands,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) after meeting with Karzai on Thursday.
In a statement posted on the Taliban’s Web site this week, Mohammad Naeem, the group’s spokesman in Doha, said it would be a sacrilege to lower the organization’s flag because an important Islamic verse is printed on it.
Of the Taliban’s placard, he said: “From a legal point of view, the Islamic Emirate has the right to hang a sign-board of its own inclination, because now it is the property of the Islamic Emirate and no one else has the right to make or dictate any alteration in it.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban has continued carrying out high-
profile attacks in the Afghan capital — an illustration of its “fight and talk” strategy. On Tuesday, 10 people were killed in a suicide attack on a NATO supply firm. Last week, several militants launched an attack near the presidential palace in Kabul before being killed by Afghan security forces.
The Afghan army, too, has remained on the offense while peace talks are on hold, executing operations in eastern Afghanistan aimed at disrupting Taliban strongholds.
For their part, U.S. officials continue to express interest in peace talks without being openly optimistic.
“We know that the government of Afghanistan wants [negotiations], as do we. But it’s up to the Taliban now to decide whether to take advantage of the opportunity that’s provided to have a discussion with Afghans, with the High Peace Council, about the future of Afghanistan and about peace and reconciliation,” U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said in a statement in response to questions about the peace process.
U.S. officials say they considered closing the Taliban office after the fiasco last month. But the prospect that this could be the best and last opportunity for the Karzai administration to reconcile with the insurgent group before NATO’s formal 2014 withdrawal persuaded officials to keep the office open.
Now, would-be Afghan negotiators are waiting for instructions from Karzai to head to Doha. But though the Afghan leader has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the Taliban if it removes the flag and banner, the insurgent group has not publicly agreed to talk with Afghan officials or to recognize the country’s constitution.
“The path to peace and reconciliation is not short. It has its ups and downs, but the High Peace Council will keep open the doors for negotiations,” said Mohammed Ismail Qasimyar, the head of foreign relations for the Karzai-appointed council, which would be charged with leading the negotiations.
Some of Qasimyar’s colleagues found themselves desperately looking for reasons to be optimistic this week, despite the Taliban’s defiance.
“What makes us hopeful is that the Taliban have not said they will abandon the talks process,” said Qazi Amin Waqad, another member of the High Peace Council. “Engaging in talks is the only alternative for ending this conflict.”
U.S. officials say they will not intervene in the talks, which they, like Karzai, contend must be “Afghan-led,” but some Afghan negotiators are eager for American assistance.
“The United States can persuade the Taliban to talk,” Waqad said. “It rules the world.”
Taliban officials, too, singled out Americans as the most important interlocutors.
“Americans are mentioned mostly because they are on the top and in point of fact, the occupation was started by them,” Naeem said in his recent statement.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.