By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty
The U.S. still anticipates that talks with the Taliban will take place “in the next few days” despite the announcement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he was backing out of security talks with both sides, a senior administration official said Wednesday.
Karzai, upset about how the Taliban portrayed themselves in opening their Doha, Qatar office, said that he was pulling out of the peace talks with the Taliban and canceling security talks with the United States.
U.S. officials say the decision by the Taliban to call themselves the “Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan” was a violation of the explicit guidelines the Qataris set for the office. The Taliban, they say, used it as a kind of slogan implying that it represented a sovereign entity in opposition to the Afghan government. Ground rules of the Doha meetings were worked out almost a year ago and the Taliban were supposed to limit themselves to simply “The Political Office of the Afghan Taliban.” Instead, they emblazoned the “emirates” name on a banner, on their office door, and used it in their public announcements.
The move caught the United States and Qataris by surprise. The Qatari government took down the sign Wednesday, the State Department says, and took steps to ensure that the political office was respecting the ground rules.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday in her daily briefing that the United States was pleased that the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement clarifying “that the office must not be treated as or represent itself as an embassy or other office representing the Afghan Taliban as an emirate, government or sovereign.”
Trust on all sides was already low and this doesn’t help but officials also point to some positive steps, namely, that the Taliban, in their statement Tuesday, opposed the use of Afghan territory for international terrorist acts and expressed willingness to participate in peace talks.
Did Karzai overreact? U.S. officials roll their eyes when the question is asked about the mercurial Afghan leader, but they also point out that the Taliban move on re-naming itself was a problem for him domestically. They hope the steps taken by the Qatari government might smooth things over.
U.S. officials continue to say that this is a difficult process, with many possible bumps in the road. Even if talks are held, as expected, the fighting will continue, they caution. If all goes according to plan, the U.S. will sit down with the Taliban, followed by talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai. The Obama administration would prefer the Afghans go first but officials say the Taliban consider Karzai and his government weak and don’t want to give it any more legitimacy than they have to. Talking with the U.S. gives the Taliban more status too.
Both the U.S. and Taliban have a specific issue to discuss as well: the U.S. wants army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl back. He’s been held by the Haqqani network for four years. The Taliban want their prisoners in Guantanamo.