U.S. ambassador says fate of Afghan peace talks unclear

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 25, 2013 

Mideast Qatar US Kerry

James Dobbins, center, U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, shakes hands with Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at Wajbah Palace in Doha, Qata

JACQUELYN MARTIN — AP

— A week after U.S. officials announced the possibility of new peace negotiations with the Taliban, only to see progress collapse almost instantly into acrimony, it’s unclear what the next step might be, said the man who likely would be the top negotiator for the United States.

Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that while the next move belongs to the insurgents, he isn’t sure whether the Taliban are really committed to the talks at this point.

“I genuinely don’t know,” he said, speaking to reporters in Kabul. “We’re waiting to hear. Clearly they were serious enough to get to the point we are, we’ve been talking off and on, directly for a number of months, and indirectly for a year and a half. So it doesn’t seem like an entirely spurious effort on their part.

“But whether they’re prepared to participate under what we thought were the agreed arrangements, I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

Dobbins was in Doha this weekend, where the talks had been expected to begin but instead have been derailed by a row over whether the Taliban were trying to set up a kind of pseudo embassy to gain more political legitimacy. Dobbins left without speaking to the insurgents and flew to Kabul, where he huddled with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Hope of talks arose June 18, when the insurgents opened a political office in Doha and U.S. officials said the idea was to use it for negotiations. The Taliban and the United States were to speak first, then later the Afghan government would step in and the Americans move aside.

But almost immediately those plans were thrown into limbo by Karzai. Angered by the insurgents’ use of embassy-like trappings – including a Taliban flag and a plaque on the front of the compound declaring it the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – Karzai changed his mind about sending a delegation to Doha. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is the name the Taliban called the country prior to the U.S.-led invasion, when they controlled much of it.

Afghan officials also said that they felt misled by the Americans and suspended talks on a crucial bilateral agreement that would lay out the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

Dobbins said his meeting with Karzai, though, was “quite positive.”

“We reviewed where we are on the reconciliation front – basically waiting to see if the Taliban want to talk. It’s quite upbeat, no real issues of controversy arose,” he said.

The name that the Taliban gave the office, and statements they made about using it to connect with other countries, made it seem they were more interested in gaining mainstream legitimacy than negotiating an end to the fighting. The compound is in a diplomatic quarter of Doha, just across the street from a neighborhood that’s home to a host of embassies, all with their own nameplates and national flags flapping in the furnace-like winds of the Qatari summer.

The office had been discussed for more than a year, and Afghan officials had long feared that the insurgents would use it to strengthen their standing and to help in fundraising, among other things.

Afghan government spokesmen said repeatedly all week that it was unacceptable for the Taliban to use the office for anything more than preliminary peace negotiations, and there could be no talks until the flag and plaque were removed.

The way the Taliban handled the opening of the office was probably was a combination of misunderstandings and, at least in part, a desire on their part to score a propaganda coup, Dobbins said.

Indeed, the opening made a news splash and overshadowed coverage the same day of the announcement that Afghan security forces had taken over the lead role from the NATO-led coalition across the entire country.

But Dobbins said the insurgents probably overplayed their hand “and as a result probably lost rather than gained ground.”

The Taliban’s stagey ribbon-cutting and the forceful response from Karzai kicked off what seemed like a weeklong farce, and there was still apparently no end in sight to the melodrama about whether its embassy-evoking flag and name plaque were up or down.

The flag and the plaque almost required a play-by-play announcer. First, they were up. Then some media reported they had been removed. But others quickly noticed that the flag was still flying, albeit on a shorter pole so that it couldn’t be seen over the security fence.

Then, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, which Karzai created three years ago to take on such negations if the chance arose, said that not only the flag but the entire flagpole was gone.

But also, in an interview published on the militant group’s Urdu-language website, a Taliban spokesman said that the flag remained in place and that the plaque had simply been moved inside and affixed to an interior wall.

Dr. Mohammad Naeem, the Taliban spokesman, said that no one could dictate to the Taliban to make “any variation or change” to the nameplate or any other symbol that they choose for their bureau.

Then another Taliban spokesman from the Qatar office insinuated that the flag and plaque were down but blasted Western media for allegedly misquoting him about whether the insurgent group had removed them willingly, and also whether he really had said the Taliban would be willing to accept foreign troops on Afghan soil.

“I urge all the media outlets to be professional and stop publishing false comments and consider all the journalism principles,” Suhail Shaheen wrote in an emailed statement.

Being fact-checked and lectured on principles by the Taliban struck some in the Kabul press corps as a particularly odd twist, given the notorious exaggerations on the insurgents’ websites and mass emails about how many “puppets” and “hirelings” they kill every day, along with improbable tales of U.S. aircraft knocked out of the sky with small arms.

Secretary of State John Kerry said that if things didn’t change, the Taliban office might have to be shut down. And during a news conference in India, he reiterated that the conditions had not been met yet for planned preliminary talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.

Kerry had said in Doha that he wasn’t sure the talks could get back on track after the blowup caused by the way the office opened.

Many analysts are skeptical that talks will be fruitful, in part because the Taliban haven’t shown much interest in peace, and also because they don’t speak for all the insurgent groups.

U.S. leaders cautioned from the beginning that peace talks might be a long shot but that it was important to try. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, repeated last week what many American leaders have long said: The fighting likely could only end with a negotiated settlement.

And there is a high-stakes secondary issue: The negotiations had expected to include talk about the Taliban releasing U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was taken captive by insurgents in 2009, in return for five insurgents being held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Any discussion of Bergdahl’s fate, like that over peace negotiations, remains on hold.

The Taliban had said last week that a swap was at the top of their list for discussion.

Naeem, the Taliban spokesman, said on the Taliban website that the prisoner exchanges would not be discussed immediately because “as everybody knows, this will be the first time both sides officially meet each other on the negotiating table. So, the first meetings would only be introductory in nature.”

But, he said, talks over prisoners were “very important.”

“We will definitely have direct talks on this issue,” he said. “The Islamic Emirate gives No. 1 priority for the release of all Afghan prisoners held anywhere in the world. We strive for the release of all prisoners.”

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