The status of preliminary peace negotiations between the Taliban and the United States is uncertain after a diplomatic row set off by the Afghan government over the opening of the insurgent group's new political office in Doha.
Taliban and US Doha talks in doubt
NEW YORK AND DOHA // The status of preliminary peace negotiations between the Taliban and the United States was still uncertain yesterday after a diplomatic row set off by the Afghan government over the opening of the insurgent group's new political office in Doha.
A meeting between the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, and senior Taliban in Doha had been tentatively set for yesterday, after 18 months of secret talks to bring the two sides to the table.
But the talks were delayed after Afghan President Hamid Karzai was enraged over the protocol surrounding the opening of the Taliban office in Doha. The Taliban cast the villa in Doha as a rival Afghan Embassy, raising the Taliban flag and putting up a sign for the "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" - the name they used when the ruled the country between 1996 and 2001
Mr Karzai suspended separate negotiations with Washington over the status of US troops who will remain in the country after the end of Nato's withdrawal of combat forces at the end of next year. He also said the Afghan government would not send its own negotiators to meet the Taliban in Doha.
American diplomats rushed to allay Afghan concerns, with US Secretary of State John Kerry speaking to Mr Karzai overnight on Tuesday and again on Wednesday, telling him that Qatari officials promised the sign had been removed, according to the state department spokeswoman.
Mr Kerry is expected to attend tomorrow's Friends of Syria meeting in Doha. Some reports claim he will meet the Taliban but the state department has said nothing is scheduled.
Late on Wednesday night, the Taliban's office took down the flag that caused such a stir, and yesterday even the flagpole itself was removed.
Also late on Wednesday, the Qatari news agency reported that "the official name, that was agreed upon with regard to the opening of this office, is the Political Bureau of Taliban in Doha", citing a foreign ministry source.
Speaking to a local journalist, the Afghan charge d'affaires in Doha, Qassim Hemat, said that these were "obstacles removed" and would "help in having friendly dialogue," though he added that there were still more obstacles to talks.
Reached by phone directly, Mr Hemat declined to comment about when or if the talks would move forward.
"Clearly the diplomatic process hasn't worked as smoothly as the Qataris would have liked," said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha. "But it's also out of their hands. There are larger powers here that are out of their jurisdiction, so it's not entirely theirs to fix."
The Taliban office sits on a quiet corner of a residential neighbourhood, just a five-minute drive from the upmarket West Bay district of Doha.
The announcement of direct US-Taliban talks, after 18 months of negotiations and false starts, had raised hopes that Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan were finally prepared to work together as the window of opportunity narrowed for negotiations with the Taliban.
But the diplomatic spat before any talks could begin was a sign of the difficult road ahead for negotiations.
"I think nobody should expect these talks to go in a smooth linear fashion. You will see hiccups, breakdowns, patch ups, and then moving forward you'll hear contradictory statements from one leader or another," said Moeed Yusuf, a Washington-based South Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace. "The important thing is for the Taliban to clearly signal that they do want to talk."
Washington hopes talks will prevent an inter-Afghan civil war and allow it to exit after 12 years of fighting with "some sort of veneer of respectability", said Arif Rafiq, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
"The major catalyst is time. The US is getting closer to end of combat operations in the country so its becoming more pragmatic in advancing a political settlement … and maybe some period of relative peace they can sell to others in Washington and say it's not a horrible failure and like the US leaving Saigon," he added.
While direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are essential for securing any of these goals, the US and the Taliban, as the major combatants in the conflict, must sit down first to gain trust. The Taliban seeks legitimacy through the opening of the office and direct negotiations, and the US wants the militants to accept the legitimacy of the Afghan political process and distance themselves from Al Qaeda.
In an interview with the AP yesterday, a Taliban spokesman in Doha said that it was prepared to exchange the only American prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, for five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay as a confidence building gesture.
Shaheen Suhail said that only after talks with the US are concluded will the Taliban sit down with the Afghan government and other factions. "First we talk to the Americans about those issues concerning the Americans and us because for those issues implementation is only in the hands of the Americans," he said.
Mr Karzai, who must leave office after elections that will take place just ahead of the US withdrawal, is "at the peak of his influence and ability to play the spoiler" before he becomes a lame duck, Mr Rafiq said. The Afghan president wants to be a part of negotiations with the Taliban now, before his leverage wanes, and also wants to extract concessions from the US on conventional military equipment that Washington has so far refused to transfer to the Afghans, over Pakistani fears, Mr Rafiq said.
"Karzai would like to utilize the American need for a partner in the post-2014 security arrangement, and they have no other person at least for the next year or so to make that deal with, so they need him," he added.
If Mr Karzai does not play the spoiler in the end and US-Taliban negotiations do proceed, there is no guarantee of success. "There is no guarnatee this will work out and many say it's too late," Mr Yusuf said. "But we do know without giving a shot it defintely will not work."
Even if a peace accord between the US and Taliban is reached, it would do little to address the political settlement between the insurgents and the multiple Afghan political and ethnic factions necessary to avert civil war once Nato leaves.
As the Taliban and Afghan government still refuse to talk, factions that fought the Taliban in the 1990s are reported to be resurecting their old military alliances, which, Mr Rafiq said, "could be an indicator of what's to come".