US-Taliban peace talks in doubt amid Afghan anger over office, flag

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NBC News

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Peace talks between the United States and the Taliban were thrown into doubt Wednesday – less than 24 hours after they were announced – when Afghan President Hamid Karzai angrily suspended his involvement.

In a statement, Karzai accused the U.S. of “a contradiction” over its decision to meet Taliban representatives and said Afghanistan would not take part “until the peace process is totally under Afghan control.”

Obama administration officials announced Tuesday that U.S. and Taliban representatives will meet for the first time and hold talks in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Government sources in Kabul said Karzai was unhappy over the Taliban's decision to open an office in Doha under the name of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" - the country's title during the Taliban regime of the 1990s – and fly its own flag outside.

The sources said the Afghan government was angry that U.S. backing for the talks would effectively endorse the Taliban's self-appointed status.

Mirwais Yasini, deputy speaker of the Afghanistan parliament, said the Taliban’s attempt to style itself as representing the country in peace talks was “undermining the whole government.”

“It is as if they are setting up their own government,” Yasini said. “Whatever we have achieved in the past 12 years means nothing. This will pave the road to another huge rift between the government and the Taliban.”

Karzai’s office also announced the suspension of separate talks between Kabul and Washington, which began late last year, to decide how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and what their exact role should be.

The Taliban has not confirmed the date for the Doha negotiations and there was no immediate word if the talks would be affected by the Afghan government's objections.

A U.S. delegation had arrived in Qatar for the talks, a diplomatic source told Reuters.

Obama on Tuesday cautioned against expectations of rapid progress in talks with the Taliban, saying the peace process would not be easy or quick.

"This is an important first step towards reconciliation; although it's a very early step," Obama said after a G-8 meeting in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. "We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road."

Although Karzai was installed with the backing of the U.S., he has been forced to distance himself from Washington in order to maintain a local consensus around Afghanistan's long path towards independence from the West.

It is the second time this year that Karzai has been at the center of a public diplomatic spat with the U.S. In March, he marred a debut visit to Kabul by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel by criticizing the U.S. position over troop levels.

Peace talks in between Afghanistan and the Taliban were announced by Karzai early Tuesday at a ceremony to mark the complete handover of security from U.S.-led forces to Afghan army and police.

Hours later, a briefing from Obama administration officials said U.S. representatives would be present at the talks, which were expected to take place in Doha within a matter of days.

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