WPost – Karzai casts doubt on talks with U.S., Taliban; Taliban rockets kill 4 U.S. troops
The Washington Post -
Karzai casts doubt on talks with U.S., Taliban; Taliban rockets kill 4 U.S. troops
By Tim Craig and Ernesto Londoño, Updated: Wednesday, June 19, 4:41 PM
Rahmat Gul/AP - Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a press conference during a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Afghan forces have taken over the lead from the U.S.-led NATO coalition for security nationwide, Karzai announced in the significant milestone in the 12-year war.
KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday suspended negotiations with Washington over a security agreement that would regulate the presence of U.S. troops here beyond 2014, apparently angered by aspects of a Taliban announcement a day earlier that opened the door for peace talks between U.S. officials and the insurgent group.
The Taliban was sending “messages of a continuation of war and bloodshed,” said a statement from Karzai’s office. It said the Afghan government no longer plans to send envoys to monitor the U.S.-Taliban peace talks in Doha, Qatar, but remains willing to consider joining those talks should they be moved from Doha to Kabul.
Adding to the complexity of launching the talks, the Taliban on Wednesday claimed responsibility for a rocket attack that killed four American troops at Bagram air base.
In Berlin, President Obama acknowledged that “this is going to be a difficult process” but said the United States remains committed to moving it forward.
“They’ve been fighting for a very long time. There’s enormous mistrust,” Obama said. “We still believe you have to have a parallel political track to at least look at the prospect of some sort of global reconciliation.”
U.S. officials had worked for weeks with Qatar to have a clear understanding of what would be said during Tuesday’s Taliban press event, at which the insurgent group announced the opening of its Doha office and — in response to a U.S. demand — pledged not to launch attacks on outside countries from Afghan soil.
From Kabul, before the Taliban announcement, Karzai backed the talks in Doha as a necessary first step, but said his government must soon play a role — a proposal the Taliban so far has rejected.
Both American and Afghan officials were taken aback, however, by two details of the Taliban event that had not been agreed on: The Taliban displayed the group’s flag during the event and spoke in front of a banner that proclaimed, in Arabic, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Karzai insists that a Taliban political office in Doha be used only for peace negotiations, and not as a base for an alternative Afghan government. To him, the banner and the flag violated that requirement.
“The president is not happy with the name of the office,” Aimal Faizi, a Karzai spokesman, told the Reuters news agency after Karzai’s office said it would suspend negotiations with the United States. “We oppose the title the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ because such a thing doesn’t exist.”
Qatar’s deputy foreign minister stood next to the Taliban representative who spoke at Tuesday’s event, directly in front of the banner. But after Karzai expressed outrage, the Qatari government released a statement saying it had been “agreed upon” in advance that the banner would read “Political Bureau of the Taliban Afghan in Doha” and not “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
The United States wants to negotiate a deal with Afghanistan to leave thousands of military trainers and support troops in the country after U.S. combat forces are withdrawn at the end of 2014. That support presence is crucial, officials say, to ensure the viability of the U.S.-trained and funded Afghan security forces.
The United States engaged in similarly fraught negotiations with the Iraqi government as the U.S. military presence there was winding down in 2010. Washington ultimately was unable to reach a deal to keep a small troop contingent in Iraq, a turning point that some U.S. officials say greatly diminished U.S. influence in that strategic country.
The Taliban strongly opposes a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, however, and said Wednesday that it fired two rockets into Bagram air base, the largest American military base in eastern Afghanistan, to protest the U.S. plans.
Four troops were killed in the attack, the U.S.-led NATO coalition said. The Associated Press reported that all four were American.
“The mujahideen of the Islamic emirate from the other side also have taken all the preparations that will be effective for the destruction of America’s nests,” said a Taliban statement, a sober reminder that insurgent violence is unlikely to subside in Afghanistan, despite the possible peace talks.
U.S. officials billed the opening of the Taliban office in Doha as a significant breakthrough, but they cautioned that it was merely a first step. Senior U.S. officials are scheduled to hold talks with Taliban envoys there this week.
“We had extensive conversations with President Karzai both before and after the Taliban opened the office in Doha,” Obama said in Berlin. “We had anticipated that at the outset, there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly . . .
“The challenge is how do you get those things started while you’re also at war. And my hope is, and expectation is, is that despite these challenges, the process will proceed.”
Although U.S. officials are confident they have identified credible Taliban representatives to whom they can reach out in Qatar, officials and analysts note that the insurgent group remains fragmented. And even if a peace deal is reached, U.S. and Afghan officials say, it will take some for the message to filter down to, and be accepted by, the various militants that operate in Afghanistan.
Martine Van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said Tuesday’s announcement of talks means little except that the Taliban has a new outlet for “respectability” and an “official channel to be approached and to disseminate their messages.”
“The opening of the office will not change the nature of the war, at least not until anything substantial happens in terms of talks,” Van Bijert said. “Both sides — the U.S. and the Taliban — are quite clear that this will not affect their operations: They will talk and fight. We might even see an acceleration of attacks.”
Karen DeYoung in Washington and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.