Afghan Peace Bid Stumbles, Talks Delayed

DOHA (TIP): A fresh effort to end Afghanistan’s 12-year-old war was in limbo on Thursday after a diplomatic spat about the Taliban’s new Qatar office delayed preliminary discussions between the United States and the Islamist insurgents. A meeting between U.S. officials and representatives of the Taliban had been set for Thursday in Qatar but Afghan government anger at the fanfare surrounding the opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state threw preparations into confusion.

The squabble may set the tone for what could be arduous negotiations to end a conflict that has torn at Afghanistan’s stability since the U.S. invasion following the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets. Asked when the talks would now take place, a source in Doha said, “There is nothing scheduled that I am aware of.” But the U.S. government said it was confident the U.S.-Taliban talks would soon go forward.

“We anticipate these talks happening in the coming days,” said State Department spokesman Jen Psaki, adding that she could not be more specific. James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan “is packed and ready to go with his passport and suitcase,” she said. One logistical complication is a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Doha on Saturday and Sunday. Kerry will discuss the Afghan peace talks with the Qatari hosts, senior U.S. officials said, but does not plan to get immersed in any talks himself or meet with Taliban representatives.

A major part of his meeting will be devoted to talks on the Syrian civil war. The opening of the Taliban office was a practical step paving the way for peace talks. But the official-looking protocol surrounding the event raised angry protests in Kabul that the office would develop into a Taliban government-in-exile. A diplomatic scramble ensued to allay the concerns. Kerry spoke with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday and again on Wednesday in an effort to defuse the controversy.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared to side with Karzai by pointing out that alliance leaders at NATO’s Chicago summit last year had made clear that the peace process in Afghanistan must be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”. “Reconciliation is never an easy process in any part of the world,” Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels. A Taliban flag that had been hoisted at the Taliban office in Qatar on Tuesday had been taken down and lay on the ground on Thursday, although it appeared still attached to a flagpole.

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A name plate, inscribed “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” had been removed from the outside of the building. But a similar plaque fixed onto a wall inside the building was still there on Thursday morning, witnesses said. Asked whether the Taliban office had created any optimism about peace efforts, the source replied: “Optimism and pessimism are irrelevant. The most important thing is that we now know the Taliban are ready to talk, and sometimes talk is expensive.”

Word of the U.S.-Taliban talks had raised hopes that Karzai’s government and the Taliban might enter their first-ever direct negotiations on Afghanistan’s future, with Washington acting as a broker and Pakistan as a major outside player.Waging an insurgency to overthrow Karzai’s government and oust foreign troops, the Taliban has until now refused talks with Kabul, calling Karzai and his government puppets of the West.

But a senior Afghan official said earlier the Taliban was now willing to consider talks with the government. “It’s hard to talk and fight at the same time,” said Marc Grossman, Dobbins’ predecessor as the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The talks will be “really” difficult, said Grossman, now vice chairman at The Cohen Group consulting firm. He added that he was heartened that the protocol dispute, which he called “the first bump” in the process, was being worked out.

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