As far as diplomatic prospects go, the omens don’t augur well. On Tuesday, the Afghan Taliban announced the opening of their first political office in the Qatari capital, Doha. They cut a ribbon, played their anthem, hoisted the Taliban flag and signaled their readiness to meet for talks with foreign delegations, including U.S. officials, whose government is clearly itching for a way out of its 12-year Afghan imbroglio. Not long thereafter, though, a Taliban attack on Bagram air base left four U.S. soldiers dead.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not at all pleased with the Taliban office’s Doha unveiling, seeing it as a challenge to Kabul’s legitimacy. Despite long-standing Afghan government demands, the insurgent militia has so far refused to accept the Afghan constitution. The Taliban’s elaborate opening ceremony, the raising of their own flag and their rhetorical invocation of the Islamic Emirate — a term that, among other things, gestures to the state they ran when in control of much of Afghanistan before 2001 — seemed to suggest the Doha office was an embassy of an alternative government rather than a front for Afghan reconciliation.
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Karzai summarily dismissed the notion of attending talks in Doha and, for good measure, also suspended planned discussions with the Americans on a security pact elaborating Washington’s involvement after the official 2014 withdrawal of international forces. He blamed the U.S. for allowing the Taliban to stage such triumphant agitprop in Qatar: “The way the Taliban office was opened in Qatar and the messages which were sent from it was in absolute contrast with all the guarantees that the United States of America had pledged,” read a statement from Karzai’s office.
U.S. officials, desperate for the prospect of talks not to collapse, are scrambling to soothe Kabul’s rage, according to the New York Times. Plans for the Taliban office in Doha — advanced both by Qatar’s Emir and the U.S. — have been an open secret for months, even as hostilities raged in Afghanistan and Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers continued to penetrate some of the most fortified areas of Kabul. Despite the violence, the need for a peace process that could bring stability to war-ravaged Afghanistan has remained imperative throughout. In tackling the Taliban, American and NATO officials know there can be no decisive military solution. And there are signs as well that, unlike the warlords of the 1990s, the current Taliban leadership knows it will be unable to oust the government in Kabul.
A Taliban commander operating in Afghanistan’s Kunar province spoke to a TIME contributor in Pakistan of his cohorts’ war weariness. “Though there are some internal differences among the Taliban, all the groups are in favor of talks as they have become exhausted of fighting,” he says.
If formal negotiations begin, at least between U.S. officials and the Taliban, it’s clear what would be first on the agenda: the rumored return of a number of Taliban fighters currently languishing in Guantánamo Bay, perhaps in exchange for the last remaining American prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier believed to be in the hands of the notorious militant Haqqani network. In an encouraging sign, the Haqqanis have overcome internal divisions within the Taliban and lent their support to the formation of the Taliban office.
But as the current climate shows, those confidence-building steps are meaningless as long as Kabul sits on the sidelines — let alone other key regional players in Pakistan and Iran. Some of the more pessimistic analysts of the region see the unraveling of the Afghan state as a fait accompli, no matter what forced diplomatic arrangements Washington pushes through. While on tour in Germany, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged the delicate choreography and difficulty of the transition to talks: “We had anticipated at the outset that there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground.”