Osama Faisal/AP
A general view of the Taliban office in Doha before the official opening in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, June 18, 2013.

Symbolism of Taliban flag and banner upends Afghan peace talks

Planned negotiations between the US, Afghanistan, and the Taliban look doubtful after the Afghan president announces a boycott amid a row over the Taliban office in Doha.

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The first talks between the US and Taliban set to take place in Qatar today are expected to be postponed, following diplomatic tensions related to the opening and naming of a Taliban office in Doha.

"It is a kind of Taliban establishment which we don't want," a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, Muhammad Ismael Qasemyar, told the BBC, referring to the newly opened Taliban office.

The opening on Tuesday was meant to be a step in the Afghan peace process after a year and a half of stalled efforts. However, the Taliban used the opportunity as a publicity stunt. The Taliban hung its flag along with a banner outside the office naming it “the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” the name the group used during its rule over Afghanistan from 1996-2001. The group also said they planned to host meetings with members of the international community like the United Nations.

Essentially, what was meant to be an office dedicated to facilitating the peace process after a 12-year war in Afghanistan appeared to be something more akin to an embassy, according to The New York Times.  

“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,” a former Afghan official in Doha told the Times.

Many Afghans who saw footage of the Taliban office opening felt removed from a process that inherently involves them: bringing peace to Afghanistan, reports the Times. Editorial cartoons from the months leading up to the talks highlight a sense of skepticism, including one of a skewered dove and another showing US surprise at who they were entering into negotiations with.

As a result of the office-opening debacle, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his delegation would not attend the talks until the Taliban’s symbolic representation as an independent government was removed. Mr. Karzai also suspended bilateral talks with the US over extending its military presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 withdrawal date.

According to Reuters, the “squabble” could set the tone for “long and arduous negotiations to end a war that has raged since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that followed the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes:

Karzai continues to gamble that the US can be bent to his will in a high stakes game of chicken, counting on President Obama to make compromises in his favor for fear of being seen as the president who "lost" Afghanistan. But whatever happens over the SOFA, or whether talks with the Taliban start in Qatar or not, they are not likely to mitigate the looming storm-clouds over the troubled country.

In a statement, Karzai rejected any US mediation role with the Taliban and insisted that talks take place inside Afghanistan. But the Taliban office in Qatar – a country that uses its oil and gas wealth to support Sunni Islamist causes around the world – had been in the works for 18 months. Inasmuch as the US has an exit strategy designed to prevent a hot civil war erupting again in Afghanistan, like the one that broke out after the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, this is it. 

To be sure, the notion is now far-fetched of any negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Karzai, who is term-limited out of office next year at the same time America is scheduled to withdraw the last of its combat troops. US and other NATO forces are more capable than the Afghan National Army, and the Taliban is looking forward to more favorable fighting terrain. Make concessions now? Why would they? 

One unnamed US official told Agence France-Presse that “it was hoped talks would take place ‘in the next few days.’

But Bruce Riedel from the Brookings Intelligence Project told AFP, "If the prize is peace in Afghanistan it's got to become a process in which Afghans talk to Afghans. And Karzai has said he's not going to talk."

In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail in Doha said the Taliban first wanted to negotiate with the United States.

"We want foreign troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan," Mr. Suhail said. "If there are troops in Afghanistan then there will be a continuation of the war." Suhail also said a prisoner exchange is top on the Taliban’s agenda before beginning peace talks, saying it would “build bridges of confidence to go forward."

The only US soldier known to be held captive by the Taliban is Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, from Idaho. The proposed exchange would exchange Bergdahl for five senior militants currently held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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