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U.S. scrambles to save Taliban talks

  • Article by: ALISSA J. RUBIN and ROD NORDLAND
  • New York Times
  • June 20, 2013 - 12:55 AM

– In a bid to regain control of a peace process with the Taliban that had suddenly spun out of control, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday slammed the brakes on two strategic lines of U.S. negotiation, again exercising his power in a strained alliance and getting results.

Karzai reacted in fury after an apparent diplomatic breakthrough Tuesday — the opening of a Taliban peace office in Qatar — instead became a publicity coup for the Taliban. In televised images that horrified many Afghans, the Taliban introduced what appeared to be an embassy, raising their flag, speaking in front of a sign declaring the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of their former government and seeking international exposure.

First, Karzai broke off long-term security talks with the United States, accusing the Americans of not delivering on promises to keep the Taliban from grandstanding. Soon after, his office announced that the government delegation would stay away from the talks until the insurgents removed their symbolic displays of being an alternative government.

The president’s gambit appeared to work: In a turbulent 24 hours, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Karzai three times and successfully pushed the Qatari government to get the Taliban to remove the sign and flag, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

However, there was much to repair from the events of the past two days, and many Afghan political figures expressed a sense of having been betrayed by both the Americans and the Taliban.

Through it all, Karzai again showed his willingness to unilaterally halt U.S. initiatives when his allies displeased him, as he did earlier this year in forcing them to hand over detention operations and banning U.S. Special Operations forces from a strategic district.

However, the U.S. response was much faster and complied unambiguously with Karzai’s demands this time, in part because they 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 curb the insurgency as Western troops withdraw and reaching an agreement to allow a lasting U.S. 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 publicity and giving the Americans a stark lesson in the complications that could be posed by the diplomatic overtures.

The developments Wednesday came a day after the U.S. military formally handed over control of security in all of Afghanistan to Afghan forces, followed hours later with the three sides’ announcement that peace talks would begin in Doha.

The opening was hailed by U.S. officials as a breakthrough after 18 months of stalled peace efforts, although they cautioned that a long road remained ahead.

Meanwhile, the Taliban played to the cameras. The insurgents opened their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem. The Taliban said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, to “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.”

The insurgents appeared to agree — as they have in the past — to distance themselves from Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, saying the Taliban’s aims were only within Afghanistan. Still, it was the insurgent presentation of themselves as a government that angered Afghan officials, and they clearly felt they were being sidelined in the peace process.

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