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.
By Elise Labott
In an effort to revive peace talks with the Taliban, the Obama administration has sweetened a proposed prisoner swap under which it would transfer five Taliban prisoners to Qatar in exchange for a U.S. soldier held by the Taliban, senior U.S. officials said.
The new proposal involves sending all five Taliban prisoners to Qatar first, before the Taliban releases Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sources said. The original offer proposed transferring the Taliban prisoners into two groups, with Bergdahl being released in between.
The new offer was first reported by Reuters.
The officials stress that the exchange, should it take place, would be implemented in accordance with U.S. law, which requires consultations with Congress before any detainees are transferred from Guantanamo. FULL POST
By Elise Labott
As NATO leaders discuss the winding down of its 10-year war in Afghanistan and pat themselves on the back for helping in the bloody ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, there is one increasingly deadly conflict that is taboo for the alliance to even think about wading into: Syria.
Practically every NATO leader has publicly condemned the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and called for him to step down and make way for a democratic transition in Syria. Yet U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said Sunday that not one leader even raised the issue of Syria during the opening day of the summit.
By Adam Levine and Tim Lister, with reporting from Ted Barrett and Pam Benson
As part of its efforts to explore peace talks with the Taliban, the Obama administration is considering the controversial release of several senior Taliban figures from the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. The names of those being considered for release have not been disclosed, and the conditions are still being discussed. But diplomatic sources say they would probably be relocated to Qatar in the Persian Gulf, where the Taliban is negotiating the establishment of a liaison office to facilitate dialogue with the U.S.
The administration has said any discussion about releasing the detainees is very preliminary and hinges on the Taliban renouncing terrorism and agreeing to peace talks.
But the proposal, confirmed in congressional testimony this week, has come under attack in Congress. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said Thursday that the U.S. was "crossing a dangerous line" by discussing the possibility of releasing the prisoners.
And in a letter to President Obama, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan, warned that the release would "send the wrong message to the Taliban." FULL POST
By CNN's Nic Robertson
The announcement of a Taliban office in Qatar has been a long time coming, and as recently as two weeks ago looked less than likely.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai withdrew his ambassador from Qatar just before Christmas, apparently unhappy that his Western allies - and principally the United States - were forging a channel for talks without his approval.
But the opening of the Qatar office does not mean the Taliban are about to surrender long-held positions and sign a peace deal. A Western diplomat who is in regular dialogue with Taliban figures told CNN they are far from throwing in the towel. He says they have not yet decided they can do better at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.
After battling their way to power in the 1990s, the Taliban held all but 5% of Afghan territory. They may now calculate that once the drawdown of Western troops is complete by 2014, Afghanistan's weak central state will be unable to hold them at bay.
However, the diplomat says it's not impossible the Taliban could enter a grand bargain with the Afghan government, and by default Western powers, that might even allow for the presence of some U.S. troops on Afghan soil beyond 2014. Such a deal is not impossible given current thinking, he said.
In September, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's Eid message struck a more conciliatory note than previously. While saying that peace was still some way off, he talked about an Afghan government in which "all ethnicities would have participation" and of the need to avoid civilian causalities. FULL POST