By KATHY GANNON
ISLAMABAD— Afghanistan’s Taliban have shuttered a newly opened office in the Gulf state of Qatar, vowing to fight on against President Hamid Karzai’s government while abandoning a diplomatic approach seen as the best hope of finding a political end to the protracted 12-year war.
Experts said Tuesday that the final withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 offered the Taliban the hope of a military victory while limiting their incentive to press ahead with peace talks. The Taliban, they said, envisioned the talks more as a means of gaining legitimacy than as a road to peace.
“I think the big gorilla in the room is the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It decreases the likelihood of a settlement because it raises the prospects of Taliban military gains,” said Seth Jones, a counterinsurgency expert at the Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank that receives U.S. funding. “Settlements usually occur when both sides reach a stalemate and see little prospect for change in the foreseeable future.”
The office’s closing could threaten a possible prisoner exchange that could free U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier from Hailey, who’s been held captive by the Taliban since 2009. The Taliban in their opening gambit offered to free Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. A U.S. official has confirmed that talks of a prisoner exchange had taken place, including timelines for the release, as well as a promise from the Taliban to show fresh and verifiable proof of Bergdahl’s health.
Still, Jones said the office closing doesn’t mean all avenues of discussion are closed.
“The U.S. will still be able to talk to the Taliban, as will the Afghan government. And they should talk,” he said. “There may be opportunities to free prisoners — including Bowe Bergdahl — once tempers cool.”
The Taliban office, which opened less than a month ago to facilitate peace talks with the U.S. and Afghan government, was mired in controversy from the outset after the religious movement was accused of trying to set up a government-in-exile by identifying its office as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It also hoisted the same white flag flown during the Taliban’s five-year rule of Afghanistan that ended with the 2001 American-led invasion.
Karzai reacted furiously and the Taliban lowered the flag and removed the sign. Both the U.S. and Qatar quickly chastised the Taliban and accused them of reneging on a promise to refrain from using either the name or the flag.
Now the office itself has been temporarily closed, a Taliban official familiar with the talks in Qatar said.
“They (the Taliban) do not go out of their homes in Doha and have not gone to the office since the removal of the flag and the plaque,” the Taliban official said in a telephone interview. He said the Taliban blamed Karzai and the U.S. for the breakdown in talks, accusing both of using the name and the flag as an excuse.
A diplomat in the region who is also familiar with the negotiations said: “The (Taliban) Political Commission has stopped all international political meetings and is not using the office.”
Both the Taliban official and the diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because neither was authorized to speak publicly with journalists.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the office closure.
“We know the office has been closed,” she said. “But, again, we’re going to continue to work through the bumpy road, and we’re hopeful that we can get it back on track.”
In Doha, the office remained guarded Tuesday by Qatari-appointed security along the outside walls. There were no signs of the flag or former sign. The gates to the compound were open, but there was no evidence of Taliban officials inside.
The two Taliban spokesmen at the Doha office did not respond to telephone calls Tuesday from The Associated Press. The Taliban official said all communications with the movement’s negotiators have been cut.
White House press secretary James Carney said reconciliation would not be easy.
“It has been a difficult process, and will continue to be,” Carney told reporters Tuesday. “And if this effort, the Doha office effort, does not succeed, we will pursue other means and other avenues for peace. Because, ultimately, peace in Afghanistan depends on a reconciliation between Afghans.”
The Taliban also flatly rejected Karzai’s peace offer made Tuesday ahead of the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
“On the occasion of the holy month of Ramadan, I once again call on Taliban, especially those Taliban who are sons of this homeland, to respect the holy month of Ramadan, to take the way of peace, compassion and kindness and to stop killing of people,” the Pashtu-language statement read.
But Taliban spokesman Qari Yasouf Ahmadi said in a statement that they saw jihad, or holy war, as an even greater obligation during the holy month.
“We will continue with our attacks on the infidels and their slaves,” he said.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he wasn’t ready to write the peace talks’ final epitaph.
“Look, quite frankly this is not necessarily a forlorn hope but what is going on is you have a Taliban increasingly convinced that it can win in the field,” Cordesman said. “It finds these peace talks an extension of their insurgency by other means,” using them to gain respectability, exposure and set themselves up as a direct competitor to the Afghan government.
Associated Press writers Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar, David Rising in Kabul, and Deb Riechmann and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.