Taliban talks likely to continue despite Doha office row

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 09, 2013 10:48 AM
Taliban talks likely to continue despite Doha office row

By Regan Doherty

DOHA (Reuters) - Despite a row over the Taliban's office in Qatar, talks on their future role in Afghanistan are eventually likely to resume in what is expected to be a difficult and unpredictable peace process, diplomatic sources said on Tuesday.

They were responding to reports that the Taliban had closed their office in Doha, the Qatari capital, after Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to their raising a flag and giving it a nameplate that suggested they wanted to set up a government-in-exile.

"Because of the arguments around the office, it hasn't really been used, but people are still willing to find a way forward," said one western diplomat.

Another diplomat said it was reasonable to assume that those involved in the talks process were still keen to make progress despite the row over the office, which opened just last month.

"It has never been used. That's not to say people don't talk," the western diplomat added.

The office is meant to allow the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement with the Afghan government, though the insurgents say they would rather talk directly to the United States who they see as the main power broker in Afghanistan.

Supported by Pakistan, the talks with the Taliban are part of a much broader process to seek peace in Afghanistan as the United States and its allies prepare to pull out most combat troops by the end of 2014.

That process also includes: diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan; preparations for next year's presidential election in Afghanistan; and talks between Washington and Kabul on retaining some U.S. troops after 2014.

The New York Times this week quoted U.S. and European officials as saying President Barack Obama was also considering a "zero option" under which no U.S. troops would be left behind in Afghanistan after the end of 2014.

ENGAGING WITH THE INSURGENTS

The talks with the Taliban - held intermittently behind-the-scenes for several years by various countries including the United States - are meant to find a way of bringing the insurgents back into the Afghan political process.

Believed to have the endorsement of the Taliban leadership, they were expected to pave the way for an exchange of prisoners as an initial confidence-building measure, according to diplomats. Among those would be five Taliban prisoners held by the United States at its prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Three senior members of the Afghan Taliban told Reuters they had not closed their office in Qatar but suspended talks and removed their flag from the building after differences emerged between the U.S. and the Afghan government over the proposed negotiations.

"We wanted direct talks with the U.S. whereas the Afghan government has been planning to hold negotiation with us, which is not acceptable to us," a senior Taliban commander said.

Pakistani and Afghan officials had no immediate comment on newspaper reports that Pakistan and Afghanistan were preparing to resume talks after a bitter row over the Doha office.

Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of backing the Taliban; in turn Pakistani officials complain that Karzai is impeding the peace process for fear of losing his authority.

Pakistani newspapers have reported that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs and national security, Sartaj Aziz, would soon visit Kabul, though dates have yet to be fixed.

The western diplomat said it was a positive sign that the two neighbors were planning talks.

(Additional reporting and writing by Myra MacDonald in London and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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