(AP) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says a spat over the Taliban office in Qatar is the “very first test” of the Islamic militant movement’s commitment to peace talks.
The opening of the Taliban office was heralded as the best chance of bringing the sides to the table, but the peace process ran aground almost immediately when Kabul objected to the wording of a sign with the name of the former Taliban regime.
The Taliban have removed the sign and lowered their flag but are divided over whether to keep them down.
Kerry says the U.S. had hoped for an important step toward reconciliation, but “it’s really up to the Taliban to make that choice.”
He spoke to reporters Saturday in the Qatari capital of Doha where he is attending separate talks on Syria’s civil war.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
Angry voices within the Taliban movement could scuttle peace talks before they even begin, infuriated that a sign identifying their new office in the Gulf state of Qatar as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was removed, their spokesman said Saturday.
The opening of the Taliban office was heralded as the best chance of bringing to a peaceful end 12 years of bloody war despite its rocky beginnings. But the peace process ran aground almost immediately when Kabul objected to the wording of its name, saying it was tantamount to the establishment of a rival government office, not a political office.
Under pressure from host nation Qatar, the Taliban removed the sign and lowered their flag —- a white flag emblazoned with a Quranic verse in black —- out of public view on Wednesday.
“There is an internal discussion right now and much anger about it but we have not yet decided what action to take,” Shaheen Suhail, the Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “But I think it weakens the process from the very beginning.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai reacted furiously Tuesday to the sign, temporarily withdrawing from talks and suspending negotiations with the United States over a security accord that is to lay out protection for U.S. forces that will remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of 2014.
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.
But Suhail said the incident 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.
“Now the process is being weakened at the beginning and not being given a chance,” he said. “This is very bad for the Afghan people, for the international community.”
In Kabul, a member of the government’s negotiation team said it was still prepared to begin talks in Qatar and said the removal of the sign and flag was a positive sign.
High Peace Council member Shahzada Shahid told The Associated Press Saturday that it was too early to say when 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 James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Doha on Saturday where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was attending meetings on Syria. His presence suggested that the U.S. remains interested in talking with the Taliban despite the recent flap.
Suhail said the Taliban had not been notified of talks with Dobbins on Saturday but he advocated for cooler heads to prevail.
“Everyone should save the process. Give a chance to the process. In one day everything cannot be resolved,” he said. “This is a very secondary thing and not important. I am also surprised that it should derail the process.”
While the “internal talks” continued over the sign, the Taliban were still cobbling together a negotiating team, the spokesman said.
The Taliban have already agreed to hand over U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, captured by the Taliban in 2009, in exchange for five Taliban held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In the telephone interview, Suhail also said that a cease-fire and women’s rights could be part of negotiations.
“Yes there should be a cease-fire but first we have to talk about how to reach a cease-fire. How can it be done in one day?” he said. “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. Afghan women’s concerns can all be part of the agenda to be discussed.”
But Suhail warned all sides to step away from voicing criticism.
“How can we achieve all those things if even from the first day there is so much public criticism,” he said.
Gannon reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed from Kabul.
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/kathygannon