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Washington - The Obama administration expects to move ahead with plans to meet with Taliban representatives within the next few days, despite a still-simmering dispute with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the negotiations that led him Wednesday to suspend separate talks over a key U.S.-Afghan security pact.
Administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, spent much of Wednesday scrambling to diffuse Karzai's anger over Tuesday's Taliban press conference, when the insurgents announced they would open an office in Qatar, raised their flag and stood under a banner reading the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - the name they used when they ruled Afghanistan a decade ago - despite written U.S. promises that would not be allowed.
Kerry telephoned Karzai twice and spoke to government officials in Qatar, and the administration said publicly that Karzai was "justifiably" upset. The Qataris met Karzai's demands to remove an "Islamic Emirate" plaque the Taliban had affixed to the wall of their new office, and issued a statement saying the venue was to be known officially as the Taliban's "political bureau of the Taliban Afghan" in the Persian Gulf state.
By the end of the day, although Karzai remained publicly defiant, the administration appeared confident that the crisis had cooled sufficiently to reschedule the opening session of the U.S.-Taliban talks that initially had been scheduled for today. The meeting could take place as early as Friday but was likely to be held off until after an unrelated Kerry visit to Qatar on Saturday for talks about Syria.
The upheaval was the latest reminder of the vexing policy dilemmas Washington must navigate as it seeks to bring its role in the Afghan war to a dignified end over the next year and a half.
Completion of the suspended bilateral security pact talks are key to continued Western support Afghanistan needs to sustain its own security forces after a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops at the end of 2014. U.S. officials, who declined to discuss the sensitive Afghanistan situation except on condition of anonymity, do not believe Afghanistan will see a longterm suspension of those talks as in its interest.
Speaking in Berlin Wednesday as the Taliban office crisis unfolded, President Barack Obama acknowledged that "this is going to be a difficult process" but said the United States remains committed to moving it forward.
"They've been fighting for a very long time. There's enormous mistrust," Obama said. "We still believe you have to have a parallel political track to at least look at the prospect of some sort of global reconciliation."
This week was supposed to mark a promising turning point in the 12-year-old Afghan conflict. Hours before Tuesday's office announcement, amid celebratory cheers both in Kabul and in Washington, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen traveled to Afghanistan to announce that Afghan security officials were taking the lead on combat missions in all parts of the country.
That night, four U.S. service members were killed in an eastern Afghanistan attack that the Taliban said was designed to demonstrate their ongoing fight against American troops.
"The occupying America wants to have long-term bases in Afghanistan, but the mujahedeen of the Islamic emirate from the other side also have taken all the preparations that will be effective for the destruction of America's nests," the group said in a statement.
In its own statement Wednesday morning, Karzai's government said that "the messages of continuation of war and bloodshed sent simultaneously with the opening of the office was fully contrary to the peace seeking spirit of the government." It added that the Taliban is working too closely with "foreigners."
American and Afghan officials had been taken aback by the Taliban's performance at the Qatar news conference, which Afghan leaders viewed as a signal that the peace talks could result in the Taliban returning to power.
"Unfortunately, the manner that the office was announced, including the title given to the office and the imagery on display were all in breach of the written assurances we received from the U.S. government," a senior Afghan official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to explain the Afghan government's position.
The United States believes thousands of military trainers and support troops are needed for a number of years to ensure the viability of the U.S.-trained and funded Afghan security officials after 2014 , but both countries want a written accord covering the terms of their presence.
U.S. officials arriving in Doha for the talks declined comment on the uproar, referring to Obama's statement.
Officials expect the first session of talks to consist only of an exchange of agendas that are unlikely to overlap. The United States wants an end to violence in Afghanistan, a complete Taliban break with al-Qaida, and Taliban recognition of the Afghan constitution. The Taliban wants all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan immediately.
Once those formalities are concluded, U.S. officials expect to get down discussing an exchange of detainees, including five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American serviceman who has been held by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network of Taliban since 2009.
Agreement on the exchange had already been reached in late 2011, before the Taliban walked out of an initial series of informal meetings in January 2012. The two sides have not met since then.
Although the Americans hope to discuss a Taliban break with al-Qaida, they intend to turn all talks about internal Afghan affairs over to the Afghan government. The Taliban has said it will not negotiate with Karzai, but as part of the deal to open the Qatar office said publicly it was willing to meet and talk with Afghans.
Assuming the talks go forward, a lower-level U.S. negotiating team will remain indefinitely in Doha, the Qatari capital, for regular sessions.
But the Taliban attack on Bagram Airfield, as well as its pledge of more bloodshed, could pose new political challenges to any serious U.S. involvement in peace talks.
Even if the Taliban negotiates in good faith, Afghan observers warn the group remains splintered, with some factions unlikely to voluntarily lay down their arms. U.S. military commanders have also said they would like to continue to assist the Afghan Army in anti-insurgency efforts.
"The opening of the office will not change the nature of the war, at least not until anything substantial happens in terms of talks," said Martine Van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Both sides - the U.S. and the Taliban - are quite clear that this will not affect their operations: They will talk and fight. We might even see an acceleration of attacks."