KABUL, Afghanistan – 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 today 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 for the present, at least, wouldn’t engage in any talks.
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.
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.