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Taliban soften stand after US warning

Published Jun 23, 2013 06:34am
—File Photo.
—File Photo.

DOHA: The Taliban signalled a willingness to meet demands to keep their flag lowered as the US warned on Saturday that their newly opened political office in Qatar might have to be closed as talks aimed at ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan remained in limbo.

A Taliban spokesman in Doha, Shaheen Suhail, suggested the Taliban were willing to move forward despite “much anger” among some members over the removal of the name and the lowering of the Taliban flag — a white flag emblazoned with a Quranic verse in black.

“In the past 12 years, the opening of the political office is the first ray in the direction of peace in Afghanistan,” Mr Suhail said. “Those who want real peace in the county should support this move. These are the first days. There should not be high expectations to see everything resolved in one day, nor should there be disappointments.”

He told AP in a telephone call that the US had not contacted the Taliban yet to discuss a meeting.

Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Taliban not to let differences on names and flags scuttle hopes for talks, saying the opening of an office in Qatar was an important step towards reconciliation that should not be squandered.

Mr Kerry, in the Qatari capital for separate talks on Syria’s civil war, said the Americans and the Afghan government’s High Peace Council were ready, and he encouraged the Taliban to remain in the process.

“Nothing comes easily in this endeavour, we understand that. The road ahead will be difficult, no question about it, if there is a road ahead,” he said at a press conference.

He said the US hoped the opening of the office would be “an important step in reconciliation, if possible” but added “it’s really up to the Taliban to make that choice.”

“It remains to be seen in this very first test whether or not the Taliban are prepared to do their part,” he said.

Meanwhile, James Dobbins, the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Doha on Saturday, suggesting the US remains hopeful about the talks despite the recent flap.

Shaheen Suhail, the Taliban’s spokesman in Doha, told AP that his office had received no word about when a meeting with Mr Dobbins might be held.

Mr Suhail also prevailed on all sides to calm the tensions over what he deemed a secondary issue.

“Everyone should save the process. Give a chance to the process. In one day everything cannot be resolved,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is a very secondary thing and not important. I am also surprised that it should derail the process.”

Mr Karzai temporarily suspended participation in talks on Tuesday angered by a sign identifying the office as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name used by the Taliban during their five-year rule that ended in 2001 after the Taliban were ousted by the US invasion for their support of Al Qaeda.

The Afghan president also suspended separate negotiations with the United States over a security agreement aimed at providing a framework for some US forces to remain in Afghanistan after the Americans and their Nato allies withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014.

The Taliban spokesman said the spat had frustrated and angered some within the militant movement who said the Taliban had been meeting representatives of dozens of countries and holding secret one-on-one meetings with members of Mr Karzai’s High Peace Council (HPC) on several occasions, always under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“There is an internal discussion right now and much anger about it but we have not yet decided what action to take,” he said. “But I think it weakens the process from the very beginning.”

In Kabul, a member of the government’s negotiation team said it was still prepared to begin talks in Qatar and described the removal of the sign and flag as a positive sign.

HPC member Shahzada Shahid said it was too early to say when members of 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.—AP