Taliban office row puts talks with US on hold

Planned meeting in Doha cancelled due to Afghanistan's objections over flag and nameplate that have now been removed.

    Peace talks between the US and the Taliban in Qatar are still on hold, with a planned meeting getting cancelled because of Afghanistan's objections over the flag and nameplate on the Taliban's new office in Doha.

    The meeting between US officials and representatives of the Taliban had been scheduled for Thursday in Qatar but Afghan anger at the fanfare surrounding the opening of the Taliban office threw preparations into confusion.

    Officials from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, upset over the official-sounding name the Taliban chose for the office, said the US had violated assurances it would not give official status to the group.

    A statement on Qatar's foreign ministry website late on Wednesday said that the office was now called the "Political Bureau for Afghan Taliban in Doha".

    The Taliban flag that had been hoisted at the villa in Doha on Tuesday had been taken down and lay on the ground on Thursday, although it appeared still attached to a flagpole.

    The 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.

    Rosemary DiCarlo, US deputy ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council on Thursday that the US dif not recognise the "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" name and was "pleased that Qatar has clarified that the name of the office is the Political Office of the Afghan Taliban, and has had the sign with the incorrect name in front of the door taken down".

    Fate of direct talks

    Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from Doha on Thursday, said it was likely that "talks will probably go ahead in the coming days", but that significant challenges needed to be faced between the US and Afghanistan on the nature of the talks.

    "[The Taliban] are going to be, in some form, part of the future of Afghanistan. What I think the Americans and the other Western allies are trying to do is get that negotiated settlement with the Taliban, rather than the alternative, which is that when most of the [foreign] troops pull out some sort of civil war takes place - that is what they are trying to avoid," he said.

    The US government said it is confident the direct peace talks will soon go forward.

    "We anticipate these talks happening in the coming days," Jen Psaki, State Department spokesperson, said, on Thursday in Washington, adding that she could not be more specific.

    Discussing Pakistan's role in the peace talks

    James Dobbins, the US 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 John Kerry, US secretary of state, to Doha on Saturday and Sunday.

    Kerry will discuss the Afghan peace talks with the Qatari hosts, senior US officials said, but does not plan to get immersed in any talks himself or meet with Taliban representatives.

    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.

    US diplomatic efforts ensued to allay the concerns. Kerry spoke to Karzai on Tuesday and again on Wednesday in an effort to defuse the controversy.

    Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan's UN ambassador, told the Security Council that the Taliban's "rather theatrical" inauguration of the political office contradicted the principles under which it was established - namely that it would be a venue for direct negotiations, that it would not serve as a Taliban "government, embassy, emirate or sovereign", and that it would not engage in or support terrorism or violence.

    "Raising the Taliban flag on Tuesday in Doha was just a reminder of a dark and bloody past from which our country still struggles to emerge," Tanin said.

    "The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sole sovereign and legitimate authority chosen by Afghan people and recognised and supported by the international community."

    Under Taliban rule, girls were barred from school and women were barred from many jobs.

    Di Carlo, in her statement to the Security Council, said that the US "will continue to stand strongly with Afghan women to protect and advance their hard-won gains", including the right to education and jobs, since the Taliban was toppled.

    Pakistan's role

    Separately, US and Pakistani officials said Pakistan's powerful military played a central role in convincing the Taliban to hold direct talks with the US.

    A prisoner swap is seen as likely to happen as the first confidence-building measure between the two sides, according to one Pakistani official who declined to be named.

    But he said there were many potential spoilers in the peace process who would want to maintain the status quo to continue to benefit from the war economy and the present chaotic conditions.

    Pakistan's UN envoy speaks on Taliban talks

    "The opening of a Taliban office and the American readiness to hold talks with the Taliban is a forward movement. What happens next depends on the quality of dialogue and political will of the interlocutors," he said.

    Pakistan has been particularly critical of Karzai, seeing him as an obstacle to a peace settlement.

    In its talks with the US officials, the Taliban was expected to seek the return of former commanders now held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, as well as the departure of all foreign troops.

    The US wants the return of the only known US prisoner of war from the conflict, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who is believed to be held by the Taliban.

    Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, reiterated US desire to free Bergdahl and acknowledged that the Taliban is likely to raise their detainees at Guantanamo early in any talks.

    "The exchange of detainees is something the Taliban has raised in the past and we certainly expect they will raise it," she said.

    "We are open to discussing this issue as part of the negotiations."

    US President Barack Obama cannot transfer the Taliban detainees from Guantanamo without a written notification to the US Congress, where some legislators vigorously oppose that move.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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