* Protocol spat snarls revived peace bid
* Exchange of captives expected to be discussed
By Amena Bakr
DOHA, June 20 A fresh effort to end
Afghanistan's 12-year-old war looked in trouble on Thursday
after a diplomatic spat about the Taliban's new Qatar office
delayed preliminary discussions between the United States and
the Islamist insurgents.
A meeting between U.S. officials and representatives of the
Taliban had been set for Thursday in Qatar but Afghan government
anger at the fanfare surrounding the opening of a Taliban office
in the Gulf state threw preparations into confusion.
The squabble may set the tone for what could be arduous
negotiations to end a conflict that has torn at Afghanistan's
stability since the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001
al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets.
Asked when the talks would now take place, the source in
Doha said "There is nothing scheduled that I am aware of", and
confirmed that meant they would not happen on Thursday.
The opening of the office was a practical step paving the
way for peace talks. But the official-looking protocol
surrounding the event raised angry protests in Kabul that the
office would develop into a Taliban government-in-exile: A
diplomatic scramble ensued to allay their concerns.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Afghan
President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday
morning in an effort to defuse the controversy, U.S. and Afghan
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared to side with
Karzai by pointing out that alliance leaders at NATO's Chicago
summit last year had made clear that the peace process in
Afghanistan must be "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned".
"Reconciliation is never an easy process in any part of the
world," Rasmussen told reporters after talks at NATO
headquarters in Brussels with Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen
Nevertheless, Rasmussen said peace talks could reinforce
security gains in Afghanistan and contribute to long-term
security and unity. "So I hope such talks will start sooner
rather than later," he said.
A Taliban flag that had been hoisted at the Taliban office
in Qatar on Tuesday had been taken down and lay on the ground on
Thursday, although it appeared still attached to a flagpole.
A name plate, inscribed "Political Office of the Islamic
Emirate of Afghanistan" had been removed from the outside of the
building. But a similar plaque fixed onto a wall inside the
building was still there on Thursday morning, witnesses said.
Asked whether the Taliban office had created any optimism
about peace efforts, the source replied: "Optimism and pessimism
are irrelevant. The most important thing is that we now know the
Taliban are ready to talk, and sometimes talk is expensive."
Word of the U.S.-Taliban talks had raised hopes that
Karzai's government and the Taliban might enter their first-ever
direct negotiations on Afghanistan's future, with Washington
acting as a broker and Pakistan as a major outside player.
Waging an insurgency to overthrow Karzai's government and
oust foreign troops, the Taliban has until now refused talks
with Kabul, calling Karzai and his government puppets of the
West. But a senior Afghan official said earlier the Taliban was
now willing to consider talks with the government.
Pakistan's powerful military played a central role in
convincing the Taliban to hold talks with Washington, U.S. and
Pakistani officials said, a shift from widely held U.S. views
that it was obstructing peace in the region.
A prisoner swap is seen as likely to happen as the first
confidence-building measure between the two sides, said one
Pakistani official, who declined to be named.
But he said there were many likely spoilers in the peace
process who would want to maintain the status quo to continue to
benefit from the war economy and the present chaotic conditions.
"The opening of a Taliban office and the American readiness
to hold talks with the Taliban is a forward movement. What
happens next depends on the quality of dialogue and political
will of the interlocutors," he said.
Pakistan has been particularly critical of Karzai, seeing
him as an obstacle to a peace settlement.
In its talks with the U.S. officials, the Taliban was
expected to seek the return of former commanders now held at the
Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, a move opposed by many
in the U.S. Congress, as well as the departure of all foreign
The United States wants the return of the only known U.S.
prisoner of war from the conflict, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who
is believed to be held by the Taliban.
The protocol dispute burst into the open on Wednesday when
Karzai said his government would not join U.S. talks with the
Taliban and would halt negotiations with Washington on a
post-2014 troop pact.
Officials from Karzai's government, angered by the
official-sounding name the Taliban chose for its political
office in Doha, said the United States had violated assurances
it would not give official status to the insurgents.
"As long as the peace process is not Afghan-led, the High
Peace Council will not participate in the talks in Qatar,"
Karzai said in a statement, referring to a body he set up in
2010 to seek a negotiated peace with the Taliban.
A statement on Qatar's foreign ministry website late on
Wednesday clarified that the office which opened was called the
"Political Bureau for Afghan Taliban in Doha".
The source familiar with the matter said: "The Taliban have
to understand that this office isn't an embassy and they are not
representing a country."
The dispute over the Taliban office after months of
behind-the-scenes diplomacy to restart the peace talks
underscored the tensions between Karzai and the Taliban.
Fighting continued in the war-damaged nation. Four U.S.
soldiers were killed in a rocket attack on the heavily fortified
Bagram base near Kabul late on Tuesday.
Underlining the importance of the peace process to
Washington, the State Department said Kerry would travel to Doha
for meetings with senior Qatari officials on Friday and
Saturday. But U.S. officials said he would not meet with Taliban