Inept handling of a US bid to open peace talks with the Taliban has left Afghan President Hamid Karzai fuming and fueled fears that the US 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 yesterday in Doha, although Washington never confirmed the time and place.
“It’s good news. We are very pleased with what is taking place,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters.
However, by Wednesday, US officials were on the defensive and Karzai 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 Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the US. They stood accused of harboring the al-Qaeda leaders who planned the bombings.
“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,” Brookings Intelligence Project director Bruce Riedel said.
Karzai “has been warning the US 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 on 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,” US Department of State 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.”
However, 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.
Karzai has never accepted the idea of unilateral US-Taliban peace talks, believing it is not up to Washington to negotiate Afghan reconciliation.