Following Taliban Flag Raising in Qatar, Low Expectations for Afghan Peace Talks

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". You'd think if you announced talks to end a war you already have your diplomatic ducks in a row. Well, when it comes to Afghanistan, apparently not. US talks with the Taliban were supposed to begin today, but did not and made a flurry of recriminations between Kabul, Washington, and the Taliban. Mostly it's over what appears to be petty stuff like what flags flies over the new Taliban office in Doha in Qatar. The BBC's Aleem Maqbool was just outside that office today. So, Aleem, what on earth is going on here and what's the issue with the flag and nameplates? Am I wrong about this being petty stuff? Or is it emblematic of greater dysfunction?

Aleem Maqbool: I think the latter is true. I mean it's certainly that kind of stuff that has hit the headlines, but it is symbolic stuff. Really this goes much much deeper than flags and plaques and the reason is because the third party in all of this, the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, the president, have been very upset about lots of things, but one of the things was the way the Taliban opened its office here a couple of days ago. It opened a political office and what the Afghan government had said was it did not want this to look like the inauguration of an embassy, it didn't want the Taliban to look like some kind of government in waiting, but that's what they feel precisely what happened. And the Taliban raised their flag over this building and, more than that, they had a plaque outside the building which said "Offices of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" and that really, really upset President Karzai. We were briefed from State Department officials yesterday that they had given assurances that those things would be taken away, the flag would be removed, the plaque would be removed, and we also were told by State Department officials that President Karzai was back on board and everything was still on track. That's not what we've been hearing today. First of all, we went to the building and, I'll be honest with you, I had a look around. It looked like all of those things had happened. Certainly, the plaque had been gone and it looked like the flag and even the pole had gone, but we had a look through a little gap in the wall and there was the flag. They shortened the flagpole, but it was still flying.

Werman: Right. I mean Karzai is obviously upset with the way the Taliban has just kinda surged ahead in kinda claiming this whole thing, but there's also this perception, not perception, the United States has been saying that this is an Afghan-led process and to me that would mean it's lead by the Karzai government. How upset is he with that characterization that this is Afghan-led?

Maqbool: Yeah, that is one of his key complaints. He feels that this has not been Afghan-led, this has not been initiated in the way that he would have liked. I mean basically what it's about is that he feels he is not being given respect or status and that his role in bringing forward peace talks has not been properly acknowledged. In fact, everything that has happened over the last two or three days, and given that now Hamid Karzai is not just upset with the Taliban, but with the Americans as well such that he's not cooperating with them currently. You know, out of all of this, it's the Taliban who are always the only ones who have done well out of this. The damage has already been done. They have already acheived what they crave which is a bit of legitimacy. They've set up this office here, they've said, "We're open for business. Come and deal with us here internationally." and that can't be taken away now.

Werman: So what happens next? I mean US delegates are already in Doha. When will they meet their Taliban counterparts?

Maqbool: All eyes right now are on Kabul because, as I say, Hamid Karzai listed a long list of grievances, a long list of things that he wanted to be dealt with before he came to the negotiating table. But what he did say was that he was fine about American officials and Taliban officials meeting bilaterally if it was not about the bigger thing, if it was not about peace talks.

Werman: The BBC's Aleem Maqbool in Doha.