U.S. President Barack Obama has defended U.S. efforts to get Afghan peace talks started at a new Taliban office in Qatar.
Obama's comments came just hours after Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended talks with the United States on a treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan as trainers and advisers after 2014.
At a press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said he saw Afghan peace talks and negotiations for a post-2014 international presence in Afghanistan as part of a "parallel track."
"Even as we go through some, frankly, difficult negotiations around what it would mean for the international community to have an ongoing training and advising presence after 2014, we still believe that you've got to have a parallel track to at least look at the prospect of some sort of political reconciliation," Obama said. "Whether that bears fruit, whether it actually happens, or whether post 2014 there's going to continue to be fighting, as there was before [NATO's] ISAF forces got into Afghanistan, that's a question that only the Afghans can answer."
Karzai responded to news of the U.S.-Taliban contacts by saying on June 19 he was breaking off negotiations with U.S. officials on a Bilateral Security Agreement because "there is a contradiction between what the U.S. government says and what it does regarding Afghanistan peace talks."
'Getting This Thing Off The Ground'
The Afghan president also charged that "foreign hands" were behind the Taliban’s new Qatar office.
He said the Afghan High Peace Council would not take part in peace talks in Qatar unless the peace process was Afghan-led.
Obama said on June 19 that Karzai’s government was unhappy about how the Taliban opened its Qatar office a day earlier.
"I think that President Karzai himself recognizes the need for political reconciliation," Obama said. "The challenge is how you get those things started while you're also at war. And my hope is and expectation is that despite those challenges the process will proceed."
Known as the "Political Office of The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the office uses the Taliban regime's name for Afghanistan before Karzai came to power.
"There were some concerns about the manner in which the Taliban opened [its office], some of the language they used," the Taliban said. "We had anticipated that at the outset there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground."
The lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament said in a statement that it would not recognize any political office outside of Afghanistan that was not part of the Afghan government.
On June 18, Karzai had said he was planning to send the Afghan High Peace Council to Qatar to "discuss peace talks" with Taliban leaders.
The Peace Council is a body of Afghanistan's Peace and Reintegration Program. Its members, appointed by Karzai, include four former members of the Taliban regime as well as political figures who are Karzai's allies and members of the political opposition in Kabul.
But the Taliban has not agreed to meet with them or even recognize Karzai’s government.
What's To Discuss?
Shukria Barekzai, a member of the Afghan parliament’s Defense Committee, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that the suspension of security talks with the United States "is opening the way for one of the conditions of the Taliban" for inviting the Afghan government to Qatar.
The Taliban insists that there should be no foreign military presence in Afghanistan.
Washington said the breakthrough for peace talks with the Taliban came when the militants announced they would meet some initial U.S. conditions for the opening of the Qatar office.
That included a declaration from the Taliban that it wanted good ties with Afghanistan’s neighbors and that it backs the idea of a political solution in Afghanistan. The Taliban also denounced the use of Afghan soil for "threats to other countries."
U.S. officials called that statement "a first step in distancing the movement from international terrorism." They said they wanted the Taliban eventually explicitly to sever all ties with Al-Qaeda.
Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, RFE/RL, and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan