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US-Taliban Afghanistan peace talks in Qatar cancelled

A fresh effort to end Afghanistan's 12-year-old war looked in disarray on Thursday after a diplomatic row about the Taliban's new Qatar office delayed preliminary discussions between the US and the Islamist insurgents.

Talks between US officials and Taliban representatives had been set for Thursday in the Gulf state but Afghan government anger at the opening of a Taliban office there threw preparations into confusion.

The dispute may set the tone for what could be long and arduous negotiations to end a war that has raged since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Asked when the talks would now take place, a source in Doha told Reuters: "There is nothing scheduled that I am aware of." Asked if that meant they would not happen on Thursday, the source added: "Yes, that's correct."

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.

Repeated phone calls by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, appeared not to have mollified Karzai, who accused the Obama administration of duplicity. Irritated by a press conference in Qatar at which the Taliban attempted to portray themselves as a government in exile, Karzai suspended talks on a long-term security deal to keep US troops in Afghanistan after Nato leaves in 2014.

News on Tuesday that American diplomats would sit down with Taliban leaders - the first direct talks since the US helped oust the group from power in 2001 - prompted speculation that real progress towards a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan might be in sight.

But while the Taliban hinted at meeting US demands of a break with al-Qaida - saying Afghan soil should not be used to harm other countries - there was only the barest of nods to Kabul's request that they talk to the current administration and respect Afghanistan's constitution. The group infuriated Karzai by displaying a white Taliban flag and repeatedly referring to the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", the name the group used when they ruled from Kabul.

The US had pledged the Taliban would only be able to use the Doha as base for talks, not as a political platform, and Karzai felt the Tuesday press conference was a clear violation of that promise, an official Afghan source told the Guardian.

The Taliban also claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Bagram air base that killed four Americans on the same day that the tentative deal about talks was announced.

More significant than the Taliban office in Qatar is the insistence of the US in taking part in broad negotiations at all. The Afghan government would prefer the US to restrict its role to fringe issues such as the fate of prisoners held by the Taliban.

Washington concedes that the process has to be "Afghan-led" to be successful, but the state department has repeated claims made by unnamed administration officials on Tuesday that the US wishes to discuss broader issues with the Taliban such as renouncing violence, links with al-Qaida and women's rights in the country.

The department said the US remained committed to making the talks happen, but acknowledged it had been a shaky start. "We always knew there would be bumps in the road," said a spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki. "Clearly this has been challenging."

She denied that Washington had been partly to blame for the breakdown in relations after conflicting messages about the US role appeared to be relayed to Kabul on Tuesday, saying: "I am not going to place fault. The conditions were agreed by all four parties."

Psaki also rejected criticism that the US had caved in by agreeing to meet with the Taliban before the group severed links with al-Qaida.

In 2011, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had described the issue as an "unambiguous red line for reconciliation with the insurgents", without which the Taliban would not be allowed to be part of a political peace process.

This apparent precondition is now a US negotiating aim instead. "We don't expect that they would decry al-Qaida and denounce terrorism immediately off the top - this is the end goal," said Psaki on Wednesday.

Kerry rang Karzai on Tuesday night after the initial announcement of talks began to rattle the Kabul government and again on Wednesday following the angry Afghan statement in response. "I don't think there was any confusion but this is a fluid process and it is not unusual for them to be speaking regularly," said Psaki.

On Wednesday the US suspended plans to attend the talks. James Dobbins, its special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will now remaining in Washington until further notice.

A state department spokeswoman said the US had also asked the Qatari government to remove a sign from outside a new Taliban office in Doha that proclaimed it as representing the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan".

[Source: By Dan Roberts in Washington, Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul and agencies, The Guardian, 20Jun13]

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small logoThis document has been published on 21Jun13 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.