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U.S. tries saving Taliban talks after Afghan president objects

Published June 19, 2013 2:38 pm

Diplomacy • Afghan president infuriated that militants treat office as a rival embassy.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Kabul, Afghanistan • 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 held 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 on the phone, telling him that his concerns were justified and that he would work to resolve the issue.

An American official, speaking anonymously, 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 may have also 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 dominated or directed by the U.S. The Taliban, on the other hand, have never really wanted to negotiate with Karzai, preferring to talk directly with the United States.

"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.