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Taliban name, flag disputes threaten talks

Indefinite delay over Qatar office

The Taliban flag was visible through a gap in a wall of the new Afghan Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday.

Osama Faisal/associated press

The Taliban flag was visible through a gap in a wall of the new Afghan Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday.

DOHA, Qatar — Taliban leaders were debating Friday whether to cancel peace talks with the Americans and the Afghan government because of criticism of their use of their flag and formal name at their new office here.

A senior Taliban official, speaking by telephone from Pakistan, said the insurgents were determined to keep their flag and also a sign declaring that the office belonged to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” despite furious reaction from the Afghan government.

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“The governments of America and of Qatar backtracked on the promise they made to us on the flag and the name,” the official said. “It was agreed we could use them. But because of the Kabul regime they backtracked.” The official, who indicated that he was in regular contact with Taliban delegates here, spoke on condition of anonymity because the group’s leaders in Quetta, Pakistan, have canceled all interviews until they decide on a unified public response over the flag issue.

US officials insisted that no such assurances had been made to the Taliban, and the government of Qatar said the office could be known only as “the political bureau of the Afghan Taliban in Doha.”

US officials had been expected to arrive in Doha on Thursday to begin talks, but the dispute caused an indefinite delay. Afghan government representatives say they no longer plan to come to Qatar.

‘The governments of America and of Qatar backtracked on the promise they made to us on the flag and the name. . . . This negotiation is not going anywhere at the moment.’ — a senior Taliban official in Pakistan

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When the Taliban office opened Wednesday, the militants were expected to publicly renounce the use of Afghan territory for international terrorism, which the US government hoped would lead to a more explicit break with Al Qaeda, a longtime Taliban ally.

The militants made such a statement, but did so at a news conference where prominent placards read “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as they flew the flag that the Taliban used when they ruled Afghanistan, a white flag with the shahada, the Muslim declaration of belief, “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet,” written on it.

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With the office in the West Bay quarter of the Qatari capital, an area thick with embassies and their flags, the Taliban flag seemed to signal an attempt to create a rival Afghan embassy. Taliban statements that the office would handle contacts and dialogue with foreign countries, international agencies, and the press heightened that impression. Afghan and US officials have publicly insisted that any Taliban office in Qatar be used only for the purpose of getting peace talks started.

Afghan officials responded Wednesday by breaking off talks with the United States on an agreement for a continuing US military presence after 2014 to protest what they said was a “contradiction between acts and statements made by the United States of America in regard to the peace process.” That was a reference to the banner and name issues, as well as to Taliban statements indicating that they intended the office to be more than just the location of a peace initiative.

In response to pressure from Qatari officials, the Taliban removed the sign that declared the office the Islamic emirate and lowered their flag so that it could no longer be seen from outside the compound.

But the official in Pakistan stressed that the Taliban had no intention of removing the emblems entirely, and would keep placards inside the building using the Islamic emirate name and continue to fly the flag.

“This negotiation is not going anywhere at the moment,” the official said. He said that while the insurgents might have to cancel peace talks over the issue, they had no intention of closing the office.

Afghan government officials have said, however, that the Qataris assured them that they would not allow the office to remain open if it was not being used for peace talks. Taliban delegates have been in Qatar for three years after earlier efforts to open such an office faltered amid bickering over the terms for talks to start.

Though the flag and name issue have drawn the most attention from all sides, the dispute goes deeper than symbolism. The Afghans say the office in Qatar cannot act as the embassy of a government in exile, while the Taliban depict it as pretty much just that.

Afghan officials were also concerned that the initial Taliban statement was as much a renewed declaration of war as a promise to open an office dedicated to peace.

“Getting the independence of the country from occupation is considered to be the national and religious responsibility and obligation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” a spokesman for the group, Mohammed Naim, said at the opening.

Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said it would not go to Qatar for talks, blaming the Taliban for “the war and bloodshed messages that were sent with the opening of the office.”

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