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Will Setback in Afghan Negotiations Affect Long-Term Prospects for Talks?

June 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A day after a breakthrough agreement on holding direct talks, Afghan President Hamid Karzai backed away from announced negotiations with the U.S. and the Taliban. Jeffrey Brown talks with The New York Times' Rob Nordland, from Doha, Qatar, for more detail on the decision and possible next moves.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I spoke to Rod Nordland of The New York Times. He’s in Doha, where the talks with the Taliban were supposed to take place.

Rod Nordland, welcome to you.

So, yesterday, this seemed buttoned up and choreographed. What happened and why? And were U.S. officials taken by surprise?

ROD NORDLAND, The New York Times: Well, they certainly seem to have been taken by surprise.

The Afghans were furious when they saw the Taliban flying a flag inside their new office and banner outside the Islamic Emirate. To them, it looked like it was an embassy. And when they heard Taliban statements, they sounded like they were describing an embassy.

And I landed here this evening, in fact, and asked a taxi to take me to the Taliban office, and they weren’t — they had no idea what I was talking about, not just because it was new, but because I was using the wrong words. When I said the Taliban embassy, they said, oh, yes, and rushed me down there.

By the time I got there, I have to say, the signs were gone. And there was no indication that they were even there, other than police cars. And they do seem to want to try to accommodate the Afghan government’s view that they shouldn’t be advertising themselves as something they supposedly are not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I was wondering. Do we know yet then whether to what extent Secretary of State Kerry’s intervention, talking with President Karzai, how much of an impact that might have had?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, it sounds like it’s done something.

I gather Karzai’s people are saying that maybe in a couple days, they can paper this over. It’s certainly a setback. And I think we will have to see what moves the Taliban makes next, what they have to say, if they are, indeed, talking, and whether the Afghan government will be satisfied that they’re not trying to present themselves as a kind of alternative — alternative embassy to the Afghan government’s embassy here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does this also apply to the question of the suspension of talks between the U.S. and the Afghan government on the U.S. military forces after 2014? Where does all that stand?

ROD NORDLAND: Yes, I think they will get that going again.

And I don’t — they never described it as anything other than a suspension. And it’s clearly in the interest of the Afghan government to have some sort of military cooperation with the United States after 2014. Among other things, they can’t pay their own soldiers and policemen if the United States doesn’t do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So your sense is that these talks may go forward in the next couple of days? I mean, can they go forward without the participation of the Afghan government, or is that necessary?

ROD NORDLAND: I think everyone agrees it’s necessary, and I think there were signals from the Taliban and from their Qatari hosts that they were willing finally to actually talk to the Afghan government directly.

They have always said that they wouldn’t talk to what they regarded as puppets. They would only talk to the Americans. And, clearly, they will first have some talks with the Americans. They want to trade some of their prisoners in Guantanamo for the only American — the only American that they hold prisoner.

But after that, everyone expects that it should move pretty quickly to some sort of talks with the Afghans. Now, whether the Taliban will follow through on that, I think that’s a very big question. And they may want to just push that off indefinitely while they’re presenting themselves, as they have so far, as having an office that is some sort of at least public relations exercise on behalf of the Taliban to the rest of the world. And that’s exactly what the Afghan government doesn’t want to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rod Nordland of The New York Times, thanks so much.