U.S. Presses Taliban on Qatar Office in Bid to Save Talks

By ALISSA J. RUBIN and ROD NORDLAND The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — In a diplomatic scramble to keep alive the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban, American officials on Wednesday pressed the insurgents to backtrack on their effort to present themselves as essentially an alternative government at the office they opened Tuesday in Qatar, Afghan officials said.

The Afghan government, furious that assurances from the Americans that the Taliban would not use the Doha office for political or fund-raising purposes had been flouted, suspended bilateral security talks with the Americans earlier Wednesday and said they would not send their peace emissaries to Qatar to talk to the Taliban until there was a change.

American officials, worried that painstaking efforts to restart the peace process after 18 months of deadlock were crumbling right at a breakthrough moment, moved quickly to try to resolve the Afghan government’s objections to what increasingly appeared to be a publicity coup by the Taliban.

Afghans of nearly every political stripe expressed outrage and concern at widely broadcast news images of insurgent envoys raising the white Taliban flag from their days in power and speaking as if they had set up an embassy for a government in exile — including raising a sign that described the office as the political office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the old Taliban government. Qatari-based news organizations, including Al Jazeera, later broadcast several interviews with the envoys making their case for international attention.

Hours after President Hamid Karzai canceled talks with the Americans over a post-2014 security agreement, accusing the Americans of saying one thing and doing another, and then boycotting the Qatar peace talks, his spokesman said that he had received assurances from Secretary of State John Kerry that the Taliban office would be curbed.

The State Department spokeswoman, Jennifer R. Psaki, confirmed that, saying that Mr. Kerry had spoken twice with Mr. Karzai, on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday.

Mr. Kerry told him that Qatar’s government had assured that the Taliban’s office in the capital, Doha, had removed the Islamic Emirate sign. “The office must not be treated as or represent itself as an embassy or other office representing the Afghan Taliban as an emirate government or sovereign,” she said.

However there was much to repair from the events of the last two days, and the Afghans said they felt betrayed by their American allies and by the Taliban.

In lashing out, Mr. Karzai again showed his willingness to unilaterally halt American initiatives when his allies displeased him, after reining in American detention operations and Special Operations missions earlier this year. It struck directly at two of the most critical parts of the Obama administration’s long-term vision for Afghanistan: entering peace talks with the Taliban to help dampen the insurgency as Western troops withdraw, and reaching an agreement to allow a lasting American military force past 2014.

At the same time, it became increasingly apparent that the Taliban, at little cost in binding promises or capital, were seizing the peace process as a stage for publicity.

The rapid-fire developments on Wednesday came a day after the American military formally handed over control of security in all of Afghanistan to Afghan forces, a development that was followed hours later with the three sides’ announcement that peace talks would begin in Doha.

The opening was hailed by American officials as a breakthrough after 18 months of stalled peace efforts, though they cautioned that a long road remained ahead.

Meanwhile, the Taliban played to the cameras.

Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news media, “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.” They did not mention the Afghan government.

Some of the other language the Taliban used closely followed the American framework for peace talks. The insurgents seemed to agree to distance themselves from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, saying the Taliban’s aims were only within Afghanistan and that they did not support the use of Afghan soil to plot international attacks.

In one move, showing a sudden and surprising willingness to open an office after months of resistance, the insurgents could appear to accede to an exhaustive international effort to start peace talks, even while using Qatari territory — and its globally reaching news outlets — in a new bid for acceptance as a political force.

“The way the Taliban office was opened in Qatar and the messages which were sent from it was in absolute contrast with all the guarantees that the United States of America had pledged,” said the statement from President Karzai’s office.

The statement also seemed to lump in Qatar, for its active role in facilitating the Taliban office, with the United States. “Recent developments showed that there are foreign hands behind the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar. Unless the peace process is led by Afghans, the High Peace Council will not participate in the Qatar negotiations,” the statement said, referring to a body Mr. Karzai established in 2010 during earlier peace efforts.

“The Taliban cannot call themselves an Islamic emirate,” said Aminuddin Mozafari, a member of the High Peace Council and a former mujahedeen commander who fought the Russians. “They are just a group of insurgents with no legal status.”

American officials said the Taliban overture was relatively sudden, initially signaled by Qatari officials toward the end of May. The timing, too, offered some surprise. Taliban forces in Afghanistan had been stepping up their attacks as summer neared, bloodying Afghan Army and police forces who have been taking the lead in security operations as American troops stepped back to a support role.

Almost as a reminder that the Taliban, too, could borrow a page from the “fight and talk” American road map for diplomacy in Afghanistan, insurgents struck within hours of the Doha office opening. Insurgents tripped a deadly ambush on an American convoy near the Bagram Air Base north of the Afghan capital, killing four American soldiers, Afghan officials said.

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington, and Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak, and Habib Zahori from Kabul.

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