US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai support the idea of holding talks with the Taliban at its Qatar office, the White House said on Tuesday, reviving hopes for a peace process.
The announcement came despite a brazen Taliban assault on the Afghan presidential palace in the heart of Kabul on Tuesday, in which three security guards and all five assailants were killed in an hour-long gun battle.
In a video call, the two leaders agreed that “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process is the surest way to end violence, and ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region,” the White House said. “They reiterated their support for an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the [Afghan government’s] High Peace Council and authorized representatives of the Taliban.”
Obama appeared to have persuaded Karzai to renew peace efforts after the Afghan president’s furious response to the Taliban’s portrayal of its newly opened Qatar office as the headquarters of a state-in-exile.
US envoy James Dobbins said on Monday that Washington was also “outraged” at how the Taliban opened the office, which had been intended as a first step toward a peace deal to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
The Taliban opened the office under the rebel group’s white flag and referred to themselves as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of their hardline 1996 to 2001 regime.
The flag and the name triggered a diplomatic bust-up that derailed an early stage of efforts to start peace talks as the US-led NATO combat mission winds down 12 years after the Taliban were ousted.
The Afghan government, which has said it is still committed to the peace process, insists the Taliban’s office in the Gulf state must only be used for direct talks with Karzai’s appointed negotiators.
The contentious sign, flag and flagpole unveiled at the opening of the office on Tuesday last week have now been removed.
On Tuesday, Dobbins arrived to Islamabad for talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other senior officials on efforts to launch negotiations with the Taliban, which have long maintained rear bases in Pakistan.
The prime minister’s office said he had told Dobbins that “Pakistan had the highest stakes in the return of peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
Karzai, furious over the way the Taliban office was opened, also broke off Afghan-US talks on an agreement that could allow Washington to maintain soldiers in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends.
The White House statement said Obama welcomed the “milestone” on Tuesday last week whereby Afghan security forces took the lead for operations countrywide.
It said the two leaders had discussed the negotiation of a Bilateral Security Agreement, but did not say when the talks might be resumed.
In the video call, the two leaders also discussed preparations for Afghanistan’s elections next year.
“The two presidents reaffirmed that free, fair and credible elections would be critical to Afghanistan’s future,” the White House said.