Kerry Woos Balking Karzai on Planned Afghan Peace Talks

The U.S. worked to sustain plans for Afghan peace talks after President Hamid Karzai balked over the American role and the Taliban’s move to open an office under the name it used when it controlled Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in phone calls during the past two days, pressed Karzai to follow through on his commitment to send members of his Afghan High Peace Council to Qatar for talks with Taliban representatives in coming days.

The Taliban opened its political office in Doha, Qatar, on June 18 as a venue for talks after more than a year of stalled efforts toward a dialogue. The U.S., in a bit of diplomatic choreography, announced plans to send a delegation for discussions, which it said would be followed by Karzai’s representatives.

Within 24 hours, the plan hit obstacles, as Karzai said his government wouldn’t take part until the peace process is fully led by Afghans. In addition, he objected to a sign on the Taliban’s Doha office labeling it as the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the Taliban government the U.S. toppled in the 2001 invasion.

Qatari officials removed the sign yesterday, and Kerry -- who spoke with the Afghan president the night of June 18 and yesterday -- reiterated to Karzai “the fact that we do not recognize the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

Even though U.S. officials are slated to meet first with the Taliban representatives, the peace process is intended to be “Afghan-led” and Afghan-to-Afghan with the U.S. playing a supportive role, she said

Volatile Karzai

There was no further public comment yesterday from Karzai, and Psaki said “we continue to coordinate and work with Afghanistan” on the issues. A U.S. meeting with the Taliban is likely in a few days, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified because the diplomacy is private.

Karzai’s actions highlighted his record as a volatile and unpredictable ally, who frequently lashes out against the U.S. even as he receives cash payments from the CIA and depends on U.S. and allied forces for his survival.

Karzai also said that he was suspending discussions with the U.S. on an accord governing the long-term presence of American military trainers to protest what he called “contradictions” between U.S. actions and statements in pursuing peace with the Taliban.

The two moves by Karzai jeopardize the pillars supporting President Barack Obama’s withdrawal strategy -- a peace process and an accord to allow a limited American military force in Afghanistan after 2014 in hopes of averting a Taliban takeover.

‘Difficult Process’

Obama said yesterday the U.S. had “extensive conversations” with Karzai before the Taliban office was opened. At a news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said he anticipated there would be friction.

Any effort to negotiate a peace “is going to be a difficult process,” Obama said. “They’ve been fighting for a very long time.”

It’s unclear whether the Taliban are seeking a deal with the Afghan government or are trying to run out the clock as the U.S.-led coalition winds down its role with the withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2014. The talks were announced as Afghan forces formally made the transition on June 18 to assume responsibility for their country’s security.

To meet a U.S. condition for the talks, the Taliban released a statement in Qatar saying it opposes the use of Afghan soil for international terrorism operations and that it supports an Afghan peace process.

‘Islamic Emirate’

In Doha, Taliban spokesman Mohamad Naim on June 18 said “we can’t say” that fighting in Afghanistan will stop before a peace agreement is reached. The Taliban “considers it its religious and national duty to gain independence from occupation and, for that purpose, has utilized every legitimate” means and will continue to do so, he said.

The U.S. has called publicly for reconciliation talks with the Taliban since early 2010 and pursued covert contacts with insurgents. The outreach was set back by numerous events, including the assassination of the Afghan government’s chief peace envoy and high-profile attacks on U.S. troops and the American embassy in Afghanistan.

Until now, the Taliban had rejected talks with Karzai’s government, characterizing it as a “puppet” regime.

The U.S. delegation will be led by James Dobbins, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. involvement is intended to help facilitate an accord between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Since the October 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban regime that was harboring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon reports that more than 2,100 American service personnel have died in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has spent $468.5 billion on the Afghan war, according to figures from the Defense Department Comptroller.

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