Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures, as he speaks during a conference about water management in Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 29, 2013, during which he broke off to address the varied attempts at peace talks with the Taliban. (Ahmad Jamshid/AP)

When President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Jan. 11 that a negotiating office for the Taliban was about to open in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, optimism soared within the administration that peace talks would soon be back on track.

But January’s optimism has become February’s reality check: There is still no agreement to open the office, and Karzai, back in Kabul after his Washington visit, says there will be no deal until Qatar meets his conditions in writing.

As the Obama administration nears a decision on the pace of U.S. combat troop withdrawals from Afghanistan between now and the end of 2014, jump-starting reconciliation has become a key element of its exit strategy.

Without some kind of political initiative underway as its forces leave, the administration fears that the United States will again be accused of abandoning the region, just as it was at the end of the Soviet Union’s Afghan occupation in the early 1990s. If another civil war breaks out, as many fear, Afghanistan’s neighbors will again feel the need to choose sides.

In addition, U.S. hopes of positioning a post-withdrawal counterterrorism force in Afghanistan to continue the fight against remnants of al-Qaeda could be compromised.

More immediately, negotiations are critical to hopes for a prisoner exchange with the Taliban that could bring a homecoming for Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl, the only U.S. service member known to be a Taliban captive.

The challenges, some of which lie within the administration, are formidable. Those who won first-term internal debates over an agreement on peace talks worry that the military, long opposed to negotiations, will dig in its heels as new members of the president’s national security team are brought up to speed. The summer fighting season in Afghanistan, always an inauspicious time for talking with the Taliban, is just months away.

Taliban leaders have been stubborn, setting their own conditions for resuming negotiations with the United States, which came to an abrupt halt early last year. The insurgents are seen as divided between those who want to wait out the American departure and those who think it’s time to start on a political path.

But Karzai himself is the biggest cause of U.S. teeth-gnashing, and not for the first time, according to several administration officials who agreed to discuss the rocky road to withdrawal on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.

The crux of the latest disagreement is Karzai’s demand that Qatar produce a written memorandum of understanding agreeing to his preconditions for the Taliban office in Doha, the Qatari capital. The demands include assurances that the office would not be used for any “political purpose” other than direct negotiations with Afghanistan, that it have a fixed time frame and be closed if talks do not take place, and that all Taliban negotiators provide “documentation” proving they are legitimate representatives.

Qatar has long preferred to operate through the United States and has rejected Karzai’s demand for written assurances. For its part, the Taliban has said it has no interest in talking to Karzai and will deal only with the United States and other “international” actors.

When Karzai visited Washington for several days last month, administration officials thought they had finessed those issues, at least enough to get the Qatar office up and running.

A senior administration official said Karzai “got his arm twisted” in Washington, and the sense was that he was prepared to let the office open. Then, the official said, Karzai “went home and got cold feet. He knows we’re in a rush and the last thing in the world we’re thinking about is him.”

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.

Mixed signals

For months, through the summer fighting season, combat was the only communication. U.S. feelers sent indirectly to the Taliban drew no response, according to U.S. officials involved in the process.

Last fall, with Obama reelected and the 2014 withdrawal deadline looming, the administration began gearing up for another try. During a late November meeting of Obama’s top national security aides, reluctant senior military officials were told that negotiations were a top priority and that the White House was ready to take anticipated heat from Congress over a prisoner release.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others conveyed the message to Pakistan.

Cooperation from the Taliban was far from assured. But U.S. intelligence indicated that at least some of its leaders might be prepared to respond to an attractive offer, including freeing the prisoners.

In an ideal world, one senior administration official said later, representatives of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which includes members from government, the opposition and civil society, would sit down with the Taliban. The United States would hold separate talks to arrange the prisoner exchange.

Signs were mixed on the eve of Karzai’s U.S. trip. His foreign minister said Doha had been approved for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban said it was “ready to establish a political office outside the country to come to an understanding with other nations,” but made no mention of talking to the Afghan government.

On Jan. 11, Karzai and Obama announced the agreement on Doha as a venue for negotiations between the Taliban and the High Peace Council. Qatar was urged to “facilitate this effort.”

Four days later, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani said at a news conference that the office would open “as soon as possible” to “facilitate dialogue between the Taliban and other political parties in Afghanistan.”

But the carefully brokered deal stalled when Karzai renewed his demand for written assurances on the talks that Qatar — and the Taliban — remain unwilling to provide.

Kevin Sieff contributed to this report from Kabul.