US: ball is in Taliban’s court for Afghan talks

DOHA, Qatar — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday urged the Taliban not to let differences on names and flags scuttle hopes for talks on ending 12 years of war in Afghanistan, saying the opening of an office in Qatar was an important step toward reconciliation that should not be squandered.

The announcement that U.S. officials and Taliban would begin formal peace talks in the newly opened office raised hopes the long-stalled process would finally get underway, but the plans quickly ran aground when Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to the wording of a sign with the name of the former Taliban regime and their former flag.

A Qatar Foreign Ministry statement said the Taliban had violated an agreement to call the office the “Political Bureau of the Taliban Afghan in Doha.” The Obama administration also said the U.S. and Qatar never had agreed to allow the Taliban to use that name on the door.

The Taliban have removed the sign and lowered their flag but are divided over whether to keep them down.

Kerry, in the Qatari capital for separate talks on Syria’s civil war, said the Americans and the Afghan government’s High Peace Council were ready, and he encouraged the Taliban to remain in the process.

“Nothing comes easily in this endeavor, we understand that. The road ahead will be difficult, no question about it, if there is a road ahead,” he said at a press conference.

He said the U.S. hoped the opening of the office would be “an important step in reconciliation, if possible” but added “It’s really up to the Taliban to make that choice.”

“It remains to be seen in this very first test whether or not the Taliban are prepared to do their part,” he said.

Meanwhile, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Doha on Saturday, suggesting the U.S. remains hopeful about the talks despite the recent flap.

Shaheen Suhail, the Taliban’s spokesman in Doha, told The Associated Press that his office had received no word about when a meeting with Dobbins might be held.

Suhail also prevailed on all sides to calm the tensions over what he deemed a secondary issue.

“Everyone should save the process. Give a chance to the process. In one day everything cannot be resolved,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is a very secondary thing and not important. I am also surprised that it should derail the process.”

Karzai temporarily suspended participation in talks Tuesday angered by a sign identifying the office as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name used by the Taliban during its five-year rule that ended in 2001 after the Islamic militant movement was ousted by the U.S. invasion for its support of al-Qaida. The Afghan president also suspended separate negotiations with the United States over a security agreement aimed at providing a framework for some U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan after the Americans and their NATO allies withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014.

The Taliban spokesman said the spat has frustrated and angered some within the militant movement who said the Taliban have been meeting with representatives of dozens of countries and holding secret one-on-one meetings with members of Karzai’s High Peace Council on several occasions, always under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“There is an internal discussion right now and much anger about it but we have not yet decided what action to take,” told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “But I think it weakens the process from the very beginning.”

In Kabul, a member of the government’s negotiation team said it was still prepared to begin talks in Qatar and called the removal of the sign and flag was a positive sign.

High Peace Council member Shahzada Shahid told the AP Saturday that it was too early to say when members of the council would travel to Qatar for talks. He also welcomed the participation of countries in the international coalition in Afghanistan and said they would have their own issues to discuss.

“Peace is very important and vital for us so we will take all measures for it,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the “internal talks” continued over the sign, the Taliban were still cobbling together a negotiating team, the spokesman said.

The Taliban already have agreed to hand over U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in Afghanistan in 2009, in exchange for five Taliban members held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Suhail also said that a cease-fire and women’s rights could be part of negotiations.

“It can be part of the agenda and be discussed, also foreign troops in Afghanistan after 2014 can be discussed as part of the agenda as well as the general concerns of the Afghan people,” he said. “How can we achieve all those things if even from the first day there is so much public criticism?”

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