WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday made his second call to the Afghan president in 24 hours to ease Hamid Karzai’s anger over the rollout of the Taliban’s new political office in Qatar — a rift that temporarily delayed U.S. talks with the militant group set to begin later this week.
Karzai was upset that when it opened its new office Tuesday in Qatar, the Taliban used its formal name, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is what it used when it was in power more than a decade ago. Afghan officials said that violated an agreement that the office should open only for negotiations, not as a political entity like a parallel institution to the Afghan government.
An angry Karzai halted negotiations with the U.S. on a future bilateral security agreement, which will govern U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan after 2014 when most international forces will have completed their withdrawal from the country. And he said he no longer would send representatives from his High Peace Council to Qatar for talks with the Taliban, presumably to be held a few days after Taliban talks with the Americans.
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said James Dobbins, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was scheduled to leave Washington to visit Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan, focusing primarily on “reconciliation efforts.” But then on Wednesday, she said Dobbins had not yet left Washington and she acknowledged that the turmoil over how the office was opened had affected his travel plans.
An American official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said a U.S. official still expected to have the first public meeting with Taliban representatives — and the first meeting between the two in more than 1 1/2 years — in the next few days in Qatar, but that no exact date had been set.
The Obama administration said the U.S. and Qatar never had agreed to allow the Taliban to use that name on the door and blamed the Taliban for engaging in a game of one-upmanship.
Psaki said that in calls to Karzai on Tuesday night and Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that the U.S. does not recognize the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
“He (Kerry) noted that the government of Qatar has taken steps today to ensure that the political office is in compliance with the conditions established by the government of Qatar for its operations and noted also that we are pleased that the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement clarifying that the name of the office is the Political Office of the Afghan Taliban and not the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has had the sign with the incorrect name in front of the door taken down,” Psaki said.
The consensus among U.S. officials was that the government of Qatar was as surprised as the Obama administration that the Taliban hoisted its flag at the opening of the office on Tuesday and used a banner that named it the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Psaki did not comment on Karzai’s decision to suspend talks on the U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement, saying only that the U.S. remained committed to continuing negotiations to craft a pact that supports shared objectives.
Asked whether the Obama administration was “taken aback” by Karzai’s reaction, Psaki replied: “Taken aback would be an overstatement. I don’t think we went into any of this process here expecting that everything would be a smooth and sunny road.”