KABUL, Afghanistan — Hopes dimmed for talks aimed at ending the Afghan war when an angry President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday suspended security negotiations with the U.S. and scuttled a peace delegation to the Taliban, sending American officials scrambling to preserve the possibility of dialogue with the militants.
What provoked the mercurial Karzai and infuriated many other Afghans was a move by the Taliban to cast their new office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as a rival embassy. The Taliban held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday in which they hoisted their flag and a banner with the name they used while in power more than a decade ago: "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Karzai on the phone, telling him that his concerns were justified and that he would work to resolve the issue.
An American official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said he still expects to have the first public meeting with Taliban representatives in the next few days in Qatar but that no exact meeting date has been set.
Nevertheless, the militants' attempt at a publicity coup clearly played to Karzai's longstanding distrust of both the Taliban and the United States, who had announced Tuesday that they would pursue negotiations in the Qatari capital of Doha — at least initially without the Afghan government.
It may have also given Karzai an excuse to try to head off the Doha talks, which he probably agreed to support only reluctantly and under U.S. pressure. Karzai has for years opposed talks outside Afghanistan and dominated or directed by the U.S. The Taliban, on the other hand, have never really wanted to negotiate with Karzai, preferring to talk directly with the U.S.
"To have this whole ceremony, televised worldwide, without a single mention of the Afghan government having a role in whatever process is going to happen ... they (Karzai and his peace delegation) suddenly realized, basically they weren't out in front, they didn't feature at all," said Kabul-based analyst Martine van Bijlert.
In a statement released by his office, Karzai lashed out at the U.S., using his leverage with Washington by suspending negotiations over what presence the United States will keep in Afghanistan after 2014. He said his High Peace Council would not enter talks with the Taliban until the negotiations were "completely Afghan."
He also criticized the Taliban and insisted that they halt their attacks on the ground before negotiations can begin.
But the Taliban appeared in no mood to lay down their arms. They claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bagram Air Base outside Kabul that killed four American service members late Tuesday.
Five Afghan police officers were also killed Tuesday at a security outpost in Helmand province by five of their comrades, officials said, the latest in a string of so-called "insider attacks" that have shaken the confidence of the nascent Afghan security forces. Local official Mohammad Fahim Mosazai blamed the killings on Taliban infiltrators.
The parallel statements and events in Afghanistan and Qatar left the Taliban looking stronger, Karzai appearing shaky and the U.S. doing damage control to find a political resolution to the war as troops leave.
President Barack Obama told reporters during a visit to Berlin that "ultimately we're going to need to see Afghans talking to Afghans."
Obama said later the U.S. knew that mistrust was rampant between the Taliban and the Afghan government and had expected "there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground."
Karzai had said Tuesday that he would send representatives from his High Peace Council to Qatar for talks with the Taliban, presumably to be held a few days after talks were held between the Taliban and the Americans.
But aides said he changed his mind after objecting to the way the Taliban announcement was handled.
Shafiullah Nooristani, a member of the High Peace Council, told the AP that the reference to "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" violated agreements that Karzai's government had made with the U.S. and caused diplomatic issues for Afghanistan.
"The agreement was that the office should open only — and only — for negotiations, not as a political entity like a parallel institution to the Afghan Embassy which is already there," Nooristani said.