June 19, 2013


[In one move, showing a sudden and surprising willingness to open an office after months of resistance, the insurgents could appear to accede to an exhaustive international effort to start peace talks, even while using Qatari territory — and its globally reaching news outlets — in a new bid for acceptance as a political force.]
Afghan security forces escorted a captured suspected Taliban insurgent on Wednesday 
during an operation in the Sorkhrod district of Jalalabad province.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Lashing out in anger at the rise of a virtual Taliban embassy in Qatar just a day before, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Wednesday broke off critical security talks with the United States and then scuttled a government peace delegation to the insurgents.
The action again showed Mr. Karzai’s willingness to unilaterally halt American initiatives when his allies displeased him, after reining in American detention operations and Special Operations missions earlier this year. It struck directly at two of the most critical parts of the Obama administration’s long-term vision for Afghanistan: entering peace talks with the Taliban to help dampen the insurgency as Western troops withdraw, and reaching an agreement to allow a lasting American military force past 2014.
At the same time, it became increasingly apparent that the Taliban, at little cost in binding promises or capital, were seizing the peace process as a stage for a publicity coup.
In one move, showing a sudden and surprising willingness to open an office after months of resistance, the insurgents could appear to accede to an exhaustive international effort to start peace talks, even while using Qatari territory — and its globally reaching news outlets — in a new bid for acceptance as a political force.
After initially responding with cautious acceptance of the opening of the Taliban office on Tuesday, long envisioned as the first step in peace talks, Afghan officials and much of the public reacted viscerally to the images that followed. News footage showed the Taliban flag being raised in the Doha office, and a banner was hung that evoked the old Taliban government: “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Afghan officials had long demanded that the office should be only an “address” for the Taliban in a neutral place, and not the symbol of a government in exile. Faced with signs that the Taliban saw the office as basically an embassy for a shadow government — and, perhaps, the realization of his expressed concerns that his American allies would seek to bypass him in talking to the Taliban — Mr. Karzai slammed the brakes.
In an initial statement, President Karzai accused the Americans of acting disingenuously in negotiating the shape of the Taliban office, and immediately called off talks between Afghan and American officials over the bilateral security agreement that would allow a post-2014 American presence in Afghanistan.
Then, in a second statement from his office, Mr. Karzai put off indefinitely any government negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar, saying that it would not meet with them unless the insurgents lowered the office’s profile and reiterating a demand that the peace process be led by Afghan officials.
“The way the Taliban office was opened in Qatar and the messages which were sent from it was in absolute contrast with all the guarantees that the United States of America had pledged,” said the statement from President Karzai’s office.
The statement also seemed to lump in Qatar, for its active role in facilitating the Taliban office, with the United States. “Recent developments showed that there are foreign hands behind the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar. Unless the peace process is led by Afghans, the High Peace Council will not participate in the Qatar negotiations.” the statement said, referring to a body Mr. Karzai established in 2010 during earlier peace efforts.
Meanwhile, American negotiators were reported to have arrived in Qatar. It was unclear in the short term whether they would go ahead with the planned negotiations at the Taliban office, or, perhaps, seek to urge the insurgents to lower the office’s profile.
“The Taliban cannot call themselves an Islamic emirate,” said Aminuddin Mozafari, a member of the High Peace Council and a former mujahedeen commander who fought the Russians. “They are just a group of insurgents with no legal status.”
The rapid-fire developments on Wednesday came a day after the American military formally handed over control of security in all of Afghanistan to Afghan forces, a development that was followed hours later with the three sides’ announcement that peace talks would begin in Doha.
The opening was hailed by American officials as a breakthrough after 18 months of stalled peace efforts, though they cautioned that a long road remained ahead.
Meanwhile, the Taliban played to the cameras.
Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news media, “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.” They did not mention the Afghan government.
Some of the other language the Taliban used closely followed the American framework for peace talks. The insurgents seemed to agree to distance themselves from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, saying the Taliban’s aims were only within Afghanistan and that they did not support the use of Afghan soil to plot international attacks.
American officials said the Taliban overture was relatively sudden, initially signaled by Qatari officials toward the end of May. The timing, too, offered some surprise. Taliban forces in Afghanistan had been stepping up their attacks as summer neared, bloodying Afghan Army and police forces who have been taking the lead in security operations as American troops stepped back to a support role.
Almost as a reminder that the Taliban, too, could borrow a page from the “fight and talk” American road map for diplomacy in Afghanistan, insurgents struck within hours of the Doha office opening. Insurgents tripped a deadly ambush on an American convoy near the Bagram Air Base north of the Afghan capital, killing four American soldiers, Afghan officials said.
Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak, and Habib Zahori contributed reporting.