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Monday, August 2, 2021

Analysis: Why things soured fast with the new Taliban office in Doha

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Former Taliban office in Doha.
Former Taliban office in Doha.

With some pomp and circumstance this week, the Taliban officially announced their presence to the world in Doha in a ceremony that unveiled their office/embassy/place to talk.

Indeed, no one seems to know what exactly the Taliban have established in Doha, because the very notion that it could be an embassy is the basis for a very serious diplomatic row that has erupted between the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai, and the United States.

Talks between the Taliban representatives were set to begin Thursday, with the aim of laying out the framework for a negotiation process between the US and the Taliban, and also the Afghan Higher Peace Council (HPC) backed by Karzai.

As of this moment, both sets of negotiations have been postponed, and the fanfare surrounding the beginning of official negotiations with the Taliban has descended into an embarrassing spectacle.

Drama explained

So why is everyone arguing? The problem started with the Taliban unveiling a plaque outside their “place of business” on which the words “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” were inscribed. Further to this, the Taliban raised their flag in the courtyard while playing a Pashtun anthem.

This made it look very much like the group was setting up a separate embassy – that of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – to rival Afghanistan’s existing one. Additionally, the American and the German governments voiced enthusiastic support for the opening of the office.

The reaction in Kabul has been one of consternation, with Karzai threatening to cut all security cooperation with the US, and withdrawing his support for the HPC discussions.

Relations between Karzai and the Taliban are extremely tenuous and Afghanistan’s volatile leader seems to have viewed the whole Doha affair as undermining his authority and supporting his enemies. The Taliban threaten to undo Karzai’s legacy of 11 years, and also bring their allies from Pakistan deep into the politics of Afghanistan, something Karzai can never accept.

Plaque removed

Qatar has taken some steps to alleviate the insult felt by Karzai.

At 11:33am on Thursday, I personally witnessed the removal of the offending flagpole, and believed it to be the end of the story, as the plaque had also been removed from the wall, leaving some rather unsightly drilling holes. Yet just an hour later, BBC Journalist Frank Gardner called me to tell me there was still a flagpole, only this time shorter and not visible from outside the compound.

This bizarre turn of events revolving around five feet of steel pole and a plaque on the wall has real meaning and significance not only for the Taliban but the whole of Afghanistan. Talks are in jeopardy, and Karzai is unlikely to resume them any time soon.

Regardless of what happened this week, it is important to remember that the US has been using Doha to talk to the Taliban for the past two years. Indeed some of you here have likely walked past Taliban and their families in City Center mall without even knowing they were there.

Global recognition

Given the tumultuous history of the talks, this weeks’ drama is nothing new or surprising, as the political disagreements between the US and the Taliban, most notably surrounding the issue of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, are well known.

But what is significant is the establishment of the Taliban as a recognized political force with a part to play in Afghanistan’s future.

And what of Qatar? Well, so far, it’s been a rather embarrassing setback for the host nation, and the Taliban’s overzealous flag-waving should come complete with an apology and an understanding that their actions have undermined a smooth negotiating process.

Regardless of Karzai’s obstinacy, the Taliban have played their part in making the diplomatic process look like a farce. The coming weekend will see US secretary of State John Kerry arrive in Doha for talks at the Friends of Syria Meeting, and his visit will surely also include discreet communications with the Taliban.

Whatever happens in the coming days, it is the Taliban who have gained, for they have achieved the global recognition they have so long desired, this despite their continued use of violence to achieve political aims.

Time will tell if they return to be a major player in Afghan politics and whether the 10 men in an office in Doha have facilitated this renaissance.

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by Salman Siddiqui, Gulf Times reporter, on Twitter

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