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US-Taliban talks stumble before they even start

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on May 4, 2013
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on May 4, 2013. Inept handling of a US bid to open peace talks with the Taliban has left Karzai fuming and fueled fears that America is ready to cut and run at any cost, experts say.

Inept handling of a US bid to open peace talks with the Taliban has left Afghan President Hamid Karzai fuming and fueled fears that America is ready to cut and run at any cost, experts say.

In a major, orchestrated roll-out after 18 months of secret negotiations via third countries, Taliban militants on Tuesday opened an office in Qatar in a bid to start a "dialogue with the world."

Just hours later US officials welcomed the move and said they hoped to meet the insurgents within days to launch the start of a peace process.

Some reports even said the talks would be held on Thursday in Doha, although Washington never confirmed the time and place.

"It's good news. We are very pleased with what is taking place," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters.

But by Wednesday American officials were on the defensive and Karzai, the elected Afghan president, was incensed by the Taliban's description of their Doha office as the "political bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."

The Islamist hardliners were ousted from Kabul by the US-led invasion triggered by the September 11, 2001 attacks. They stood accused of harboring the Al-Qaeda leaders who planned the bombings.

US Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, DC, June 19, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, DC, June 19, 2013. In a major, orchestrated rollout, Taliban militants on Tuesday opened an office in Qatar in a bid to start a "dialogue with the world." "It's good news.

"Such a title immediately signals that the Taliban are not a political party or a terrorist organization. Instead it signals that they are the legitimate government of Afghanistan," said expert Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project.

Karzai "has been warning the United States and Qatar not to do this, and I think as a consequence he feels that his interests were ignored."

Kerry was forced to telephone Karzai twice in an attempt to fix things, but to little avail and the Afghan president, known for his angry outbursts, suspended bilateral security talks.

And the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins, who on Tuesday was said to be about to board a plane, was Wednesday still in Washington with "his passport, ready to go."

"We are now in consultations with the Afghan leadership and the High Peace Council on how to move forward," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, although another official said it was hoped talks would take place "in the next few days."

The Qataris had offered assurances that the offending title had now been removed, Psaki said, adding it had been clearly understood by all sides that "the office must not be treated as or represent itself as an embassy."

But amid deep levels of distrust among all sides and as US and international troops get ready to leave next year, the events only served to highlight the difficulties ahead.

"The perception in the region is that the Americans are getting ready to cut and run, and that this is evidence of that. There's some quite serious fence-mending that will need to be done in the days ahead," Riedel said.

Scott Smith, deputy director of the US Institute of Peace's Afghanistan program, said the idea of opening a Taliban office in Doha was first floated in late 2011 in what he called a "diplomatic masterstroke."

"The problem with diplomatic masterstrokes is that, unless they quickly change the facts on the ground, their effect dissipates. The remaining -- and so far elusive -- piece of the puzzle is to secure Karzai's acceptance," Smith wrote in recent commentary.

Afghan policemen stand guard at a checkpoint, 50 kms north of Kabul on June 19, 2013
Afghan policemen stand guard at a checkpoint, 50 kms north of Kabul on June 19, 2013.

Karzai has never accepted the idea of unilateral US-Taliban peace talks, believing it is not up to Washington to negotiate Afghan reconciliation.

Pskai said it was also the US position that "an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process is the surest way to end violence."

"Through a not very well-orchestrated 24 hours, we've now reached the point where our side, the party that we support, the internationally legitimate Afghan government has now gone on the defensive," said Riedel.

And while the Taliban in a statement said it would not allow anyone to attack other countries from Afghan soil that fell far short of publicly breaking with Al-Qaeda -- long a US condition for any peace settlement.

Riedel said if this condition was "jettisoned" the perception was that the US might also accept other concessions.

Washington does have an interest in speaking to the Taliban too -- notably to secure the release of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, captured on June 30, 2009.

The Taliban is also likely to want back several of its members held in the Guantanamo Bay military jail in southern Cuba.

"While getting our soldier home is a good thing, this is nothing to do with peace in Afghanistan," cautioned Riedel.

"If the prize is peace in Afghanistan it's got to become a process in which Afghans talk to Afghans. And Karzai has said he's not going to talk."

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