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US presses Taliban to back down on Qatar office

KABUL — In a diplomatic scramble to keep alive the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban, US officials on Wednesday pressed the insurgents to backtrack on their effort to present themselves as essentially an alternative government at the office they opened on Tuesday in Qatar, Afghan officials said.

The Afghan government, furious that assurances from the Americans that the Taliban would not use the Doha office for political or fund-raising purposes had been flouted, had suspended bilateral security talks with the Americans earlier Wednesday and said they would not send their peace emissaries to Qatar to talk to the Taliban until there was a change.

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US officials, worried that painstaking efforts to restart the peace process after 18 months of deadlock were crumbling right at a breakthrough moment, moved quickly to try to resolve the Afghan government’s objections to what increasingly appeared to be a publicity coup by the Taliban.

Afghans of nearly every political stripe expressed outrage and concern at widely broadcast news images of insurgent envoys raising the white Taliban flag from their days in power and speaking as if they had set up an embassy for a government in exile — including raising a sign that described the office as the political office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the old Taliban government. Qatari-based news organizations, including Al Jazeera, later broadcast several interviews with the envoys making their case for international attention.

Hours after President Hamid Karzai canceled talks with the Americans over a post-2014 security agreement, accusing the Americans of saying one thing and doing another, and then boycotting the Qatar peace talks, his spokesman said that he had received assurances from US of State John Kerry that the Taliban office would be curbed.

The State Department spokeswoman, Jennifer R. Psaki, confirmed that, saying that Kerry had spoken twice with Karzai, on Tuesday night and again Wednesday.

Kerry told him that Qatar’s government had assured that the Taliban’s office in the capital, Doha, had removed the Islamic Emirate sign. “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,” she said.

However, there was much to repair from the events of the past two days, and the Afghans said they felt betrayed.

In lashing out, Karzai again showed his willingness to unilaterally halt US initiatives when his allies displeased him, after reining in US detention operations and special operations missions earlier this year. It 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 dampen the insurgency as Western troops withdraw, and reaching an agreement to allow a lasting US military force past 2014.

At the same time, it became increasingly apparent that the Taliban were seizing the peace process as a stage for publicity.

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

The opening was hailed by US 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.

Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news 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.

The statement from Karzai’s office said: “The way the Taliban office was opened in Qatar and the messages which were sent from it was in absolute contrast with all the guarantees that the United States of America had pledged.”

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