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Kerry calls Afghanistan's Karzai to ease anger over Taliban office


A security guard stands outside the Afghan Taliban Political Office after the official opening, in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Secretary of State John Kerry assured Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the government of Qatar took down a sign board under the name of "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," adding that the United States is committed to all its agreements with the Afghan government.

The Taliban office "must not be treated as or represent itself as an embassy or other office representing the Afghan Taliban, as an emirate government or sovereign," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. 

Kerry called Karzai twice in the past 24 hours to ease his anger, Psaki said.

His assurances came hours after peace talks between the United States and the Taliban were thrown into doubt Wednesday – less than 24 hours after they were announced – when Karzai angrily suspended his involvement.

In a statement, Karzai accused the U.S. of “a contradiction” over its decision to meet Taliban representatives and said Afghanistan would not take part “until the peace process is totally under Afghan control.”

Obama administration officials announced Tuesday that U.S. and Taliban representatives will meet for the first time and hold talks in the Qatari capital, Doha.

President Obama says he welcomes Afghan President Hamid Karzai's announcement that Afghan forces would take the lead on security for their country, stressing that it's important to see "Afghans talking to Afghans about how they can move forward."

Government sources in Kabul said Karzai was unhappy over the Taliban's decision to open an office in Doha under the name of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" - the country's title during the Taliban regime of the 1990s – and fly its own flag outside.

The sources said the Afghan government was angry that U.S. backing for the talks would effectively endorse the Taliban's self-appointed status.

"The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement clarifying that the name of the office is the Political Office of the Afghan Taliban and not the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and that it had the sign with the incorrect name in front of the door taken down," Psaki said. 

Mirwais Yasini, deputy speaker of the Afghanistan parliament, said earlier the Taliban’s attempt to style itself as representing the country in peace talks was “undermining the whole government.”

“It is as if they are setting up their own government,” Yasini said. “Whatever we have achieved in the past 12 years means nothing. This will pave the road to another huge rift between the government and the Taliban.”

Fazal Rahman Orya, a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition of Afghanistan, said the Taliban should not have used the word “emirate” because “this is a problem for Afghan government, for the U.S. and for the Taliban.”

However he said Karzai had acted childishly in pulling out of the talks and should have accepted the situation, even though it showed Karzai’s government was weak.

Karzai’s office also announced the suspension of separate talks between Kabul and Washington, which began late last year, to decide how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and what their exact role should be.

Psaki said the U.S. remains "committed to peace and reconciliation and remain prepared to negotiate with Afghanistan to conclude a BSA (bilateral security agreement) that supports our shared objectives." 

The Taliban has not confirmed the date for the Doha negotiations and there was no immediate word if the talks would be affected by the Afghan government's objections.

"Because we're working with the Afghans on what the next appropriate step is, there isn't a meeting," Psaki said regarding the United States' planned talks with the Taliban. "I know there were reports of it, but reports of a meeting being scheduled or on the books aren't accurate."

Twelve years after the Taliban were toppled from power in Afghanistan, international troops have handed over responsibility for security to the country's army. But as the ceremony took place, a suicide bomb killed three people, a reminder of the constant challenge that lies ahead. ITN's Nick Thatcher reports.

Obama on Tuesday cautioned against expectations of rapid progress in talks with the Taliban, saying the peace process would not be easy or quick.

"This is an important first step towards reconciliation; although it's a very early step," Obama said after a G-8 meeting in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. "We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road."

Although Karzai was installed with the backing of the U.S., he has been forced to distance himself from Washington in order to maintain a local consensus around Afghanistan's long path towards independence from the West.

Mati Ullah Mjadidi, a village elder in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, backed Karzai’s stance and said talks should not go ahead without Afghanistan’s presence.

“The U.S. … should not make problems,” he said, adding that the Taliban’s self-styled emirate state and flag “do not represent Afghanistan.”

It is the second time this year that Karzai has been at the center of a public diplomatic spat with the U.S. In March, he marred the debut visit to Kabul by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel by criticizing the U.S. position over troop levels.

Peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban were announced by Karzai early Tuesday at a ceremony to mark the complete handover of security from U.S.-led forces to Afghan army and police.

Hours later, a briefing from Obama administration officials said U.S. representatives would be present at the talks, which were expected to take place in Doha within a matter of days.

Reuters and NBC's Ian Johnston contributed to this report.



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