US envoy says waiting for word from Taliban on peace talks

The United States and Afghanistan are still waiting to hear from the Taliban about opening peace talks, but remain willing to go ahead with negotiations despite a stir the militant group caused in opening a new office in Qatar, the main American envoy trying to spearhead the process said Monday.

Following meetings with Qatari officials in Doha on Sunday and with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials in Kabul on Monday, James Dobbins said the Taliban appeared to have made a miscalculation when it opened the office last week under the flag and name they used when in power in Afghanistan.

The office's creation was intended as a step toward starting talks that Dobbins said would initially be between the Taliban and the Americans, then bring in Karzai's government. But the Taliban's flourish in opening it with a ceremony shown live on TV prompted quick condemnation from Karzai. He said the flag and calling the bureau an office of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" made it akin to an embassy and conferred legitimacy on the Taliban that they should not have.

Amid pressure from the U.S. and Afghans, the Qatari government moved quickly to have the offending sign and flag taken down.

"There was a combination of misunderstandings and a desire on the Taliban's part to score a propaganda advance, and they seem to have overplayed their hand and as a result probably lost rather than gained ground," Dobbins told a group of reporters.

In a statement illustrating the challenges ahead, however, the Taliban said Monday that reports that their office had agreed to remove the sign and flag were "baseless and fabricated" -- though both are down at the site.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the group's stance hadn't changed on the use of both. He did not say whether they planned on trying to put them back up.

After the Taliban office's opening, Karzai lashed out, saying that international assurances made to him had been broken. He suspended bilateral talks with the U.S. on what presence American and coalition forces would keep in Afghanistan after 2014.

After meeting with Karzai, Dobbins said the security agreement did not come up in their discussions together, but that their talks were "quite positive."

"We reviewed where we are on the reconciliation front -- basically waiting to see whether the Taliban want to talk. It was quite upbeat, no real issues of controversy emerged."

He noted that the U.S. had reacted to the Taliban's move even before Karzai had made his public statement.

"We were outraged ourselves, because it was inconsistent with the assurances we'd been given and the assurances we'd given and we didn't need any prompting to determine that," he said. "We thought the Afghan reaction was both entirely predictable, and entirely justified."

Karzai's office said in a statement that he had emphasized to Dobbins that Afghanistan still wants the peace process, and that it should be led by Afghans. Dobbins said the arrangement has always been that the U.S. and Taliban would meet and then "within a few days" the Afghan sides would begin meeting.

Dobbins said it was still not clear whether the Taliban was prepared to participate at all, but said the signals have been that they are.

"Clearly they were serious enough to get to the point that we are... so it doesn't seem like an entirely spurious effort on their part," he said. "But whether they're prepared to participate under what we thought were the agreed arrangements, we just don't know. We'll have to wait and see."

Despite setting up the peace office, the Taliban has not renounced violence, and the Afghan Ministry of Defense said fighting continued in several regions of the country.

Three Afghan soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb explosion in the southern Helmand province, the ministry said, while claiming to have killed 17 Taliban fighters in three separate operations around the country.

In Kabul, police fired on protesters who set fire to a vehicle while chanting "death to Karzai," and "death to the occupiers."

The protests centered on government plans to develop a subdivision in the capital on land long occupied by squatters. Demonstrators blocked two main roads out of the city, and said they would continue their protests until the government gave them somewhere else to live.

Police Gen. Mohammad Zahir said his forces were only deployed after Japanese experts working on the construction project called saying that "armed criminals" were threatening to kidnap them.

He said police came under fire and then shot back, and that two policemen and eight protesters were injured.