KABUL (Reuters) - Progress in Afghan peace talks rests entirely on whether the Taliban are willing to come to the table, a U.S. special envoy said on Monday, describing their ceremonial opening of an office in Qatar as an attempt to “score a propaganda advance”.
Outraged at the fanfare of the office having a flag and official plaques, Afghan President Hamid Karzai not only withdrew from the talks but suspended negotiations with the United States over a vital security pact.
U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins arrived in Kabul on Monday for talks with Karzai after spending several days in Qatar dealing with the fallout.
The impasse may set the tone for what will be, at best, arduous negotiations to end 12 years of war between the Taliban-led insurgency and international and Afghan forces.
Kabul said the regalia gave the mistaken impression the militants - who ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted by the U.S. offensive launched after the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities - had achieved some measure of global recognition.
The flag and plaques were removed last week amid the diplomatic efforts and on Sunday the Afghan government said the flagpole had been removed by the Qatari authorities.
Dobbins, who also met the two ranking members of the Afghan body created in 2010 to broker peace with the Taliban, the High Peace Council, described his meeting with Karzai as “positive”.
“We reviewed where we are on the reconciliation front - (which is) basically waiting to see if the Taliban want to talk,” he said.
Dobbins’s remarks came just hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a news conference in India that conditions for talks with the Taliban had not been met yet.
When asked if the Taliban were committed to participating in the peace talks, Dobbins said it remained unclear. “I genuinely don’t know. We’re waiting to hear,” he said.
“Clearly they were serious enough to get to the point we are (at). We’ve been talking off and on, directly for a number of months, and indirectly for a year and a half,” he said.
“So it doesn’t seem like an entirely spurious effort on their part. But whether they’re prepared to participate under what we thought were the agreed arrangements, I don’t know - we’ll have to wait and see.”
The Taliban have issued a series of statements over recent days, saying they had the permission of the Qatari government to use their official name and flag. They have yet to say whether they will participate in talks under the rules previously agreed with the United States and Afghanistan.
Spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters there had been some hopeful signs for the talks, adding that “we want to see if we can get it back on track”.
However, he said a new date had yet to be set and Dobbins, has not met Taliban representatives.
Speaking about how the opening of the Doha office was allowed to go so wrong, Dobbins said: ”There was a combination of misunderstandings and a desire on the Taliban’s part to score a propaganda advance.
“They seemed to have overplayed their hand and as a result probably lost rather than gained ground.”
Since it was opened, the Karzai government has said the United States provided written assurances the Taliban would not be allowed to use the Doha office for purposes other than for peace negotiations.
While Afghan officials declined to specify the written assurances, Dobbins said they were provided to Karzai by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Editing by Alison Williams