THIS JUNE, an unassuming compound in the West Bay neighbourhood of the Qatari capital, Doha, became the site of a high diplomatic farce whose aftershocks are still being felt in Washington, Islamabad, and New Delhi. As horrified Afghan officials watched on their televisions in Kabul from 2,000 kilometres away, members of the Taliban gathered in the compound’s courtyard. With the pomp that might surround an embassy opening, they cut a ribbon, hoisted a white flag from their 1996–2001 rule in Afghanistan, and sang an anthem. On the outside wall of the compound was a plaque that read “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the name of their former government.
For the Taliban, it was a propaganda coup. Their Doha office, which had grown out of initial contacts between American, German, Qatari, and Taliban officials in 2010, was intended to serve as a platform for confidence-building measures such as prisoner swaps and, eventually, talks. The ultimate aim was “reconciliation” between Afghanistan’s democracy and a gradually disarmed Taliban, thereby easing the long-term pressure on the Afghan state after most Western combat forces, which will have been fighting the insurgency continuously for over a decade, leave next year.
In theory, Afghanistan’s government supported these moves. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been calling the Taliban his “brothers” for years. But Karzai has always been nervous about this diplomacy, not least because it played badly amongst many nationalists at home. In 2012, for example, he had withdrawn his ambassador to Qatar in protest at feeling cut out of talks. This time, the process was supposed to be “owned and led” by the Afghans, and Karzai had been promised by the Obama administration, in writing, that the Taliban’s office would not look like a government-in-exile. It was agreed that its name would be the dull-sounding “Political Bureau of the Afghan Taliban”. Largely as a result of Qatar’s ineptitude in enforcing those understandings, that promise was gratuitously broken. Karzai’s typically petulant response was to cancel crucial talks over a US–Afghan security agreement, which will determine how many US troops can stay behind beyond 2014.