Hopes dimmed for talks aimed at ending the Afghan war when an angry President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday suspended security negotiations with the U.S. and scuttled a peace delegation to the Taliban, sending American officials scrambling to preserve the possibility of dialogue with the militants.
What provoked the mercurial Karzai and infuriated many other Afghans was a move by the Taliban to cast their new office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as a rival embassy. The Taliban had a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday in which they hoisted their flag and a banner with the name they used while in power more than a decade ago: “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Karzai by phone, telling him that his concerns were justified and that he’d work to resolve the issue.
An American official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said he still expects to have the first public meeting with Taliban representatives in the next few days in Qatar but that no exact meeting date has been set.
Nevertheless, the militants’ attempt at a publicity coup clearly played to Karzai’s longstanding distrust of both the Taliban and the United States, who had announced Tuesday that they would pursue negotiations in the Qatari capital of Doha — at least initially without the Afghan government.
It also may have given Karzai an excuse to try to head off the Doha talks, which he probably agreed to support only reluctantly and under U.S. pressure. Karzai has for years opposed talks outside Afghanistan and dominated or directed by the U.S. The Taliban, on the other hand, have never wanted to negotiate with Karzai, preferring to talk directly with the U.S.
“To have this whole ceremony, televised worldwide, without a single mention of the Afghan government having a role in whatever process is going to happen ... they [Karzai and his peace delegation] suddenly realized, basically they weren’t out in front, they didn’t feature at all,” said Kabul-based analyst Martine van Bijlert.
In a statement, Karzai lashed out at the U.S., using his leverage with Washington by suspending negotiations over what presence the U.S. will keep in Afghanistan after 2014.