Hopeful Week In Afghanistan Turns Sour

The Obama administration sounded a hopeful note on Afghanistan earlier this week. It was announced that Afghan forces had taken the lead on security and that the Taliban was opening an office in Qatar, giving hope for renewed peace talks. Within hours, a Taliban attack killed four Americans and Afghan officials called off their talks with the U.S. Renee Montagne talks Alissa Rubin, Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times, for details.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

It was supposed to be a hopeful week for Afghanistan. Afghan forces officially took the lead on security. And the Taliban opened an office in Qatar that they can use while starting peace talks. Both steps are crucial to the U.S. withdrawal scheduled for 2014. But President Hamid Karzai objected when the Taliban raised their flag and presented themselves as almost a rival government. So he called off talks with the U.S. on how to handle the American drawdown. It took a day of frantic U.S. calls to Karzai and the Taliban's Qatari hosts to smooth things over.

Joining us on the line from Kabul to sort this all out is Alissa Ruben. She's bureau chief for The New York Times. Good Morning.

ALISSA RUBEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, we had originally thought that talks between the U.S. and the Taliban would start today. So given what I've just said, where do things stand?

RUBEN: I think at the moment, the talks may start but not today. Probably not for several days because there's a lot of injured feelings, and quite a bit of diplomacy that needs to be done to get this back on track.

As soon as the Taliban opened the office, which was late Tuesday night here in Kabul, it was apparent they were opening it in such a way as to present themselves as a kind of alternative to the Afghan government. They called the office the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is the old name for the country, and suggested that they were sort of presenting it almost as an embassy.

And from the Afghan government's point of view, the only purpose of that office is to talk to representatives of the Afghan government authorized to negotiate a peace deal. So there was a feeling that the Taliban had kind of hijacked this opportunity and turned it into a way to put themselves forward as a sort of illegitimate entity.

MONTAGNE: Is that the main reason Karzai government is upset about this new office? Or are there other reasons?

RUBEN: No, I think that they have always been wary of the new office, but in part for this reason that it gave the Taliban a forum, that it gave them the chance to present themselves as sort of rational actors, when what they're doing in Afghanistan is killing civilians and killing Afghan soldiers and refusing to recognize the government. And beyond that it was, you know, the Taliban raised their flag and that was something that was really seen as very offensive as well.

So while these all seem like optics, they actually speak to a competition, in a sense, over who is going to be seen as a legitimate political force. And the Afghan government does not want the Taliban to be seen as that at this point, when they don't even recognize the Afghan government.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Taliban also this week made a point of saying that no foreign attacks would be launched from Afghanistan, apparently trying to show some distance from al-Qaida and, as Americans would remember, the 9/11 attack. How much of a shift is that for the Taliban?

RUBEN: It's not much of a shift. They have really said this on several occasions over the last year or two. I think that the proof is in the pudding. Are they - you know, you would have to look at who is financing them, and see whether they are really willing to distance themselves from al-Qaida or other foreign entities that might be interested in paying for terrorist attacks abroad, outside Afghanistan.

They certainly want to be seen as a kind of freedom fighters. But that's pretty debatable, that that's what they are at this point, given the way they have undertaken the war here.

MONTAGNE: Alissa, thanks very much.

RUBEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Alissa Rubin is the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times, speaking to us from Kabul.

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