KABUL, AFGHANISTAN— The Taliban had the agreement of the Qatar government to use its flag and banner at the opening of its Doha office, the group said on Sunday, in a sign it may be unwilling to remove what has become a key sticking-point in nascent Afghan peace talks.
There appeared to have been a breakthrough last week in efforts to kickstart peace talks to end a 12-year-old war in Afghanistan, when the Taliban said it was opening a long-anticipated office in the Qatari capital, Doha.
But those hopes were dashed when the Afghan government reacted in outrage over the opening of the office last Tuesday, protesting against the raising of the Taliban flag and the use of signs proclaiming "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name the Taliban used during their brief rule from 1996 to 2001.
President Hamid Karzai canceled plans for an Afghan peace delegation to travel to Qatar and suspended talks with the United States over a vital security pact, in the belief it had failed to ensure the Taliban did not misuse the office.
And despite subsequent negotiations, Sunday's statement appears to suggest the Taliban may not be ready to back down.
"The raising of the flag and the use of the name of Islamic Emirate were done with the agreement of the Qatari government," the Taliban spokesman in Doha, Dr. Mohammad Naeem, said.
He also responded to reported remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the militant group had signed a pact with the United States on the use of the office.
While Reuters could not locate the specific report Naeem referred to, on Saturday Kerry did tell a Doha news conference that an "agreement" had not been adhered to.
"No such agreement has been signed, nor does such an agreement exist, although documents have been exchanged between the Islamic Emirate and the Qatari government regarding conditions of the office," Naeem said.
Kerry's comments in Doha appeared to have a more pessimistic cast than previous official U.S. remarks.
"We need to see if we can get back on track. I don't know whether that's possible or not," Kerry said.
"If there is not a decision ... to move forward by the Taliban in short order, then we may have to consider whether or not the office has to be closed."
The Karzai government showed no sign of compromise, and on Sunday foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai repeated that the ceremonial opening was in breach of "assurances" from the United States.
"We still need a full explanation about what happened," Mosazai said. "That needs to be explained in a clear, transparent manner to the Afghan government and those discussions and contacts are taking place as we speak."
If the Taliban office did not prove useful to the peace process, it should not exist, Mosazai said.
"If the office is not productive to the peace process... it is better that this office should not only be closed but annihilated," he added.
Afghanistan, the United States and Qatar have waited since Tuesday to see if the Taliban leaders would agree to remove the contentious symbols.
While a plaque reading "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" has been removed from the entrance to the office, a similar nameplate inside the building has stayed. The Taliban flag was lowered, but not removed.
The Taliban have delayed plans to start operations at the Doha office on Sunday, while awaiting instructions from their leaders, a source from the Qatari foreign ministry told Reuters.
"They told us that the office was going to be open today at 7 a.m., but no one is here and they still didn't tell us what their new plans are," said the source. Taliban spokesmen in Doha were not immediately available to comment.