36 Confused Hours

Will We or Won’t We? State’s On, Then Off, Then On Again Taliban Talks

No sooner did the U.S. first announce the talks to reporters than did Karzai again seem to suggest the Taliban was working in cahoots with us, reports Josh Rogin.

Over 36 hours, the State Department announced that the U.S. would hold talks with the Taliban “in a couple of days,” then appeared to cancel those talks as the lead negotiator didn’t board his flight to Doha, Qatar, after the latest outburst from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and then announced that the talks were on and nothing had changed, but we didn’t know when they would be.

The yo-yoing began Tuesday morning, when three “senior administration officials” convened a last-minute, early-morning conference call with reporters that made news: the U.S. and the Taliban would soon begin a series of meetings that would constitute the closest thing to peace talks in the Afghanistan war in over a year.

“The U.S. will have its first formal meeting with the Taliban, and indeed first meeting with the Taliban for several years, in a couple of days in Doha,” one official said on the call. “And I would expect that to be followed within days with a meeting between the Taliban and the High Peace Council, which is the structure that President Karzai has set up to represent Afghanistan in talks of this nature.”

That news, though, only came up during the question-and-answer portion of the conference call. The officials initially focused on the long awaited opening of a Taliban representative office in Doha and the fact that Karzai had announced that the Afghan government would meet with the Taliban for the first time since the Taliban killed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the previous head of the High Peace Council, in 2011.

The U.S. officials downplayed the U.S.-Taliban talks and tried to focus on the Taliban’s plan to engage the Afghan government. The officials also sought to set expectations low.

“The core of this process is not going to be the U.S. Taliban talks—those can help advance the process, but the core of it is going to be negotiations among Afghans, and the level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one would expect. So it's going to be a long, hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all,” one official said. “So we're at the beginning of a difficult road.”

Little did they know that on Wednesday, Karzai would suddenly announce that his government would not sit down with the Taliban. What’s more, he said, Afghanistan was suspending its participation in the U.S.-Afghan talks about a bilateral security agreement to provide for some U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan past 2014.

“In view of the contradiction between acts and the statements made by the United States of America in regard to the Peace Process, the Afghan government suspended the negotiations, currently underway in Kabul between Afghan and US delegations on the Bilateral Security Agreement,” Karzai’s office said in a statement.

Karzai—who in March seemed to suggest the United State and the Taliban were in cahoots, saying the group’s attacks "show that the Taliban are serving the foreigners and are not against them" (he later walked the remark back)—said Tuesday that the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, where the U.S. intended to meet with the group’s representatives, was a betrayal by America, and that the Afghan government would not participate in the peace talks until “foreign powers” stopped controlling the process.

“Unless the peace process is 'Afghanized', the High Peace Council is not attending the Taliban Qatar talks," another statement from Karzai’s office said.

Back in Washington, the Obama administration scrambled to grasp and then respond to Karzai’s bombshell. Secretary of State John Kerry called Karzai twice, once late Tuesday night and once Wednesday morning, to try to smooth over the latest rift between the U.S. and Afghan governments.

President Obama, in Berlin to make a major speech on nuclear-arms reductions and transatlantic relations, was confronted with the diplomatic mess during his press conference alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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Obama said the issue was that the Taliban had used the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on signs outside their new Doha digs, which angered the Karzai government because it implied the office was acting as an embassy of an independent country.

“We had extensive conversations with President Karzai both before and after the Taliban opened the office in Doha. As I think has been reported, there were some concerns about the manner in which the Taliban opened it, some of the language that they used,” he said.

Obama also sought to tamp down expectations that the talks would quickly result in a peace agreement while still defending the effort to try to work toward one.

“We had anticipated that at the outset, there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground. That’s not surprising. As I said, they’ve been fighting for a very long time. There’s enormous mistrust,” he said, adding that the ongoing violence also impedes progress on the diplomatic front.

Back in Washington, the administration’s national-security public-affairs bureaucracy was in full damage-control mode. The Daily Beast obtained an interagency email sent by the national-security staff spokesperson Laura Lucas to officials at the State Department and Pentagon. The email laid out the talking points and also warned the agencies not to elaborate.

“Because we're also seeing breaking news that the Afghan are pulling support for Doha, NSS guidance is that other principals and briefers refer to/quote the President's remarks today and not put more out there,” Lucas wrote. “This is just going to a fast-moving train for a while and its best for now to stick to principles and decline to comment on every twist and turn.”

In one of the most brutal State Department press conferences since State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki took over last month, State Department press corps reporters pressed again and again for an explanation as to what went so wrong and how the U.S. and Karzai could be on such different pages.

Psaki claimed that the U.S.-Taliban meetings had never been set, contradicting the senior administration officials on Tuesday’s conference call, and also claimed that nothing had gone afoul. “Well, I would dispute that anything went wrong,” she said.

“I know there have been lots of reports out there about various meetings that have been scheduled or not scheduled ... We never confirmed that was a meeting from here,” Psaki said, referring to the State Department. “And so, again, we are continuing to work with the Afghan government and with the High Peace Council to determine next steps.”

When reporters pointed out that the “reports” she mentioned were based on the administration’s own conference call, Psaki claimed she wasn’t aware of that.

“Well, I’m not sure specifically what you’re referring to,” she said. “But the president has spoken to this. We talked significantly about this yesterday. The secretary spoke to this briefly yesterday. So I would hardly say this was a rollout solely with a background briefing.”

But would the lead negotiator, former U.S. ambassador James Dobbins, Obama’s special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, still be going to Doha as the State Department had said on Tuesday?

“Well, I don’t have an update for you. And as we do, I’m sure we’ll talk about this in the days ahead as well. So we’re continuing to coordinate. That’s where we are right now,” she said.

Later Wednesday afternoon, a senior administration official visited the State Department bullpen, the work area where many reporters hang their hats during the day. The official said that the talks were back on and would likely occur in the “next few days.”

The State Department offered no explanation as to how or why the talks had been rescheduled, and officials told The Daily Beast no firm date has yet been set.

Kerry happens to be traveling to Doha this weekend as part of his latest multicountry tour. When asked if Kerry would meet with the Taliban, Psaki said no.