U.S. bids to save Afghan peace efforts

Karzai, Kerry seek to solve differences over Taliban talks

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- In a bid to regain control of a peace process with the Taliban that had suddenly spun out of control, 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. Karzai broke off long-term security talks with the United States, accusing the Americans of failing to deliver 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 of diplomatic moves, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Mr. Karzai three times and successfully pushed the Qatari government to get the Taliban to take down the sign and flag, U.S. and Afghan officials said. "The office must not be treated as or represent itself as an embassy or other office representing the Afghan Taliban as an emirate government or sovereign," State Department spokeswoman Jennifer R. Psaki said.

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

The U.S. response, however, was much faster and complied unambiguously with Mr. 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 U.S. officials 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, with the Qatari deputy foreign minister in attendance. The Taliban said they intended to use the site to meet with international community and United Nations representatives, to interact with the 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 language the Taliban used closely followed the U.S. framework for peace talks. 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, and that they did not support use of Afghan soil to plot international attacks.

Still, it was the insurgent presentation of themselves as a government that angered Afghan officials, and they clearly felt that they were being sidelined in the peace process. Indeed, Afghan officials had been worried enough that the Taliban might act out that they had demanded and got a letter from President Barack Obama guaranteeing that the office would not look like an embassy and confer legitimacy, said Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi.

The White House would not confirm or deny the letter. But an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Mr. Obama had sent one offering such assurances.

Later Wednesday, at the comfortable new villa housing the Taliban office in Doha's West Bay district, evidence of the U.S. diplomatic scramble could be seen: The white Taliban flag and the Islamic emirate sign had both been taken down. And Qatari police forces were stationed outside.

But one former Afghan official in Doha, an adviser to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan government peace envoy killed in 2011 by a Taliban assassin, said the insurgents had already won an important battle. "Through those pictures of the Taliban flag waving in the air and the banner on the office, it took people to see two countries, two flags, two legitimacies. The damage is already done," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.

As for the Taliban office, he said he expected that it would remain open, and that that had been the aim of the Taliban all along. "One of the reasons they did it was to rehabilitate the Taliban, to make them palatable enough for elections," he said.

U.S. officials said the initial discussions with the Taliban that had been planned for today in Doha had been called off. But some U.S. officials had traveled to Qatar, and officials expressed hope that after the scramble Wednesday, the talks could be resumed soon, with the Afghan government delegation taking part as well.

Almost as a reminder that the Taliban, too, could echo the "fight and talk" U.S. road map in Afghanistan, insurgents struck within hours of the Doha office opening. Militants staged a deadly ambush on a U.S. convoy near Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, killing four U.S. soldiers, Afghan officials said.

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