Less than a day after the Taliban opened a new political office in Qatar, the prospects for peace talks that it represented for war-weary Afghanistan faltered.
The Afghan government said Wednesday that it wouldn’t send representatives to Qatar after all, and that it was suspending talks with the United States over a key military pact. The problem: When the Taliban unveiled the new office, a banner made it clear that they were calling themselves the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
That’s the name the Taliban used for Afghanistan during their rule over much of the country from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and their use of it suggests that they’re claiming to be the true government.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not amused. Just before the Taliban office in Qatar opened Tuesday, Karzai had said he planned to send members of his High Peace Council there to speak for Afghanistan. But the council announced Wednesday that it wouldn’t negotiate with the Taliban while they were operating under that name.
“We oppose the title of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan because such a thing does not exist,” Karzai’s chief spokesman, Aimal Faizi, tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
President Barack Obama, who was traveling in Europe on Wednesday, downplayed the rift and said he hoped that peace talks would proceed. At a news conference in Germany, he said the U.S. had anticipated “some areas of friction, to put it mildly.”
“I think that President Karzai himself recognizes the need for political reconciliation,” Obama said. “The challenge is how do you get those things started while you’re also at war. And my hope is, and expectation is, is that despite those challenges, the process will proceed.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry placed phone calls to Karzai late Tuesday and early Wednesday in an attempt to mend fences. He told Karzai that the U.S. also doesn’t recognize the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and that the sign in Qatar has been removed. He told Karzai the agreement with Qatar calls for the facility to be called the Political Office of the Afghan Taliban.
The talks had been expected to open Thursday with preliminary discussions between the Taliban and the United States, but they’re on hold as the U.S. consults with the Afghan government, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. Afghan representatives had been scheduled to arrive a few days later.
A spokesman for the peace council said it would study the situation but that for the present, at least, it wouldn’t engage in any talks.
“The acts in Qatar are against our previous agreements and discussions with Qatar and the U.S,” said Ismail Qasimyar, international relations adviser to the council. "The moves like hanging the banner as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, well, we have a legal and elected government and we only know the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which is clearly mentioned in our Constitution."
The Afghan government also announced that was suspending discussions with the United States over the terms of a bilateral security agreement that would set down specifics of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after all combat troops in the NATO-led coalition depart at the end of 2014. The U.S. offense was agreeing to talk with the Taliban while the insurgents were styling themselves as a government.
The Afghan Parliament issued a statement backing Karzai’s actions.
“Opening any sort of office is illegal and against the national and international treaties if its address is not the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” the statement said. “Any kind of negotiations should be led by the Afghans, and the Afghan government should lead the negotiations.”
As the name issue and other details about the Taliban’s plans for the office began to emerge, analysts said it appeared that the insurgent group may have been more interested in opening a quasi-embassy to boost its international credibility all along than in creating a venue for peace talks.
“The Afghan government has previously insisted that this office would be for peace negotiations and not be used for other political purposes, and that it would be opened in the presence of the Afghan High Peace Council representatives,” said Ahmad Sayeedi, an Afghan political analyst. "But it was opened yesterday as a political office with Taliban’s flag on it and their representatives clearly mentioned the Islamic Emirates in their statement and never mentioned negotiations with the Afghan government.
“I think the Afghan government has a diplomatic embassy in Qatar, and having such an office beside that will be a major issue and challenge for the Afghan government and is against all the international treaties. There are also fears that other Gulf and Arabic countries will open such offices for Taliban, to collect money for them from the Arabic countries in pretext of peace negotiation.”
The crisis over the name was the most recent in a string of setbacks for the prospects of a negotiated settlement. For years, the U.S. government has tried to encourage talks without significant progress, and it’s been a year and a half since the Taliban revealed that they planned to open the Qatar office.
The Taliban have long said they’d never negotiate with Karzai – whom they alternately call a puppet and a stooge of Western governments – but they appeared to have changed their minds when they agreed to various conditions before they could open the office.
U.S. officials had said Tuesday that they were hopeful about the chances for a negotiated political settlement to the nearly 12-year war, but many also were careful to say that it was hardly a sure thing. Obama said Wednesday that the U.S. had had “extensive conversations” with Karzai before and after the office opened.
Continuing violence in Afghanistan also undercut talk of peace. The Taliban claimed credit Wednesday for an overnight rocket attack on the largest NATO base, Bagram airfield, north of Kabul. The NATO-led coalition confirmed that indirect fire had killed four of its troops but it didn’t immediately release their nationality.
Obama acknowledged the ongoing war and “enormous mistrust” between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but said that the U.S., even as it continued to train Afghan security forces, believed that “you’ve got to have a parallel track to at least look at the prospect of some sort of political reconciliation.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this story from Washington.