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Concern Grows That Closing Taliban Office in Qatar Could Undermine Peace Talks

FILE - A general view of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar.

The Afghan government reportedly has sought the closure of the Afghan Taliban office in Qatar, citing the inefficiency of the office as a reason behind its request to the U.S. and Qatari officials.

There has been no official confirmation of such a request being initiated by the Afghan government. But a senior official with knowledge of discussions between senior Afghan officials and their American counterparts, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA the Afghan government did discuss plans to close the Qatar office when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly last month.

The Afghan official added that the Qatar office has contributed "little to the peace process with the Afghan Taliban."

Faizullah Kakar, the Afghan ambassador to Qatar, told VOA that although his government has not officially informed him of any formal discussion or decision about the Taliban office, Kabul might be evaluating the effectiveness of the Doha office and its fate.

"The Taliban office was set up to secure peace talks, but it has done little to help facilitate negotiations," Kakar said. "The [Afghan] government is discussing the issue with the U.S. and Qatar to decide whether the office should remain open."

Meanwhile, Qatar has indicated it would accept any decision made by the U.S. and Afghan governments about the future of the office.

The Taliban office was opened in 2013 with support from the U.S., Afghan and Qatari governments to provide a venue for peace talks with the Taliban to help end the conflict in the country.

The office has failed to achieve that and instead has become a travel facilitator for Taliban leaders.

"There are arguments that the office gives the three dozen Taliban representatives unfounded legitimacy, and allows them to hold secret talks with Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran," Matthew P. Dearing, an assistant professor at Washington-based National Defense University, told VOA.

"It is not clear that moving the office to Kabul will end these bilateral discussions unless Ghani intends to prevent Taliban representatives from traveling abroad," Dearing added.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Oct. 3, 2017.
FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Oct. 3, 2017.

U.S. stance

Senior U.S. officials said Washington was mulling the fate of the office.

"I think the decision will be made shortly," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, adding that one of the issues was to make sure the right people representing the Taliban are in the office.

"He [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] is looking to make certain we have the right people, so it's just not an office in existence — an office that we can actually deal with," Mattis added.

The Afghan government has for years left open the door of peace talks to the Taliban and has established a peace council to establish ties with the insurgents. The Taliban repeatedly has rejected talks with Kabul, however, and instead has continued its bloody insurgency.

Ghani recently said there was a window of opportunity for the Taliban to follow in the footsteps of the Hezb-i-Islami party led by Gulbuddin Hematyar, who recently joined the peace process.

Ghani warned that the offer will expire at some point.

"We are offering a chance for peace, but this is not an open-ended offer," Ghani said following a truck bomb attack in Kabul in May that killed more than 150 people and injured hundreds more.


Some Western diplomats and analysts have voiced concerns about the prospects of closing the Taliban office, maintaining that such a move could undermine the prospects of a political settlement in Afghanistan.

FILE - A U.S. armored vehicle patrols in Kabul, Afghanistan,, Aug. 23, 2017.
FILE - A U.S. armored vehicle patrols in Kabul, Afghanistan,, Aug. 23, 2017.

Closing the office "would foreclose on the possibility of a negotiated settlement, the only realistic and honorable way to end America's longest war," Jarrett Blanc, a former U.S. deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a recently published op-ed in Defense One, and news and analysis website focused on U.S. defense and national security issues.

Pierre Mayaudon, European Union ambassador to Afghanistan, said the office has served a purpose.

"The office in Qatar is a way of communication. It's a tool. It's not by itself, I think, an objective," Mayaudon told VOA.

The Taliban has warned that closing the office would end the chance for a peaceful settlement to the Afghan war.

Kabul-based Taliban expert Waheed Muzhda argued that the closure would strengthen the position of warmongers within the Taliban leadership ranks.

"If the office were closed, it would weaken those Taliban leaders who support a political solution to the war in Afghanistan," Muzhda said.

Dearing, of the National Defense University, agreed.

"There are too many reasons why an office closure is a bad idea," Dearing told VOA. "Unless Ghani calls this a 'move' rather than a 'closure' and offers a new home for the exiled Taliban in Kabul, then hard-liners will be empowered and have proof the U.S. and Afghan governments do not seek a political settlement."

Afghan Ambassador Kakar said that while the Taliban's representatives in Qatar support a political settlement, real talks happen in other places, such as Pakistan.