Members of the State Department press corps didn't get what they wanted from spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at the September 13 daily briefing, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
Several reporters were chasing U.S. confirmation of a report that the government of Qatar has granted the Taliban permission to open what amounts to a political office there, with Washington's blessing.
The "Times" of London says it talked to a "Western diplomat" who told the newspaper that the office won't be an embassy, but a “residence where they can be treated like a political party." The newspaper says the move is aimed at enabling the West "to begin formal peace talks with the Taliban."
The article says that "the diplomat stressed that the Taliban would not be permitted use the office for fundraising or in support of their armed struggle in Afghanistan."
If true, the report would signal a major development in U.S. policy, so it's not surprising that State Department reporters didn’t want to take 'no' for an answer when they questioned the unflappable Nuland about it.
Here's what happened when it came up:
First Reporter: "On Qatar: The government there says they've allowed the Taliban to open up a liaison office as a matter of goodwill, and they say they've spoken with the United States government about it and received the U.S.'s blessing. Do you have any comment on that? Is that true? And what does this say about the future of possible reconciliation talks?"
Nuland: "We have nothing for you on that, [reporter's name], nothing further."
Second Reporter: Why not?
First Reporter: "Why not? Is that an accurate report, when they say that the U.S. has given its blessing?"
Nuland: "I'm not prepared to comment one way or the other on that one. I apologize."
Second Reporter: "Do you recognize the Taliban?"
First Reporter: "Do you have any comment– is it true that they have opened this office, can you confirm that much?"
Nuland: "I can't, one way or the other."
First Reporter: "Well, presumably I could probably walk up to it if I went to Doha, but, so, you can't confirm that from the podium?"
Nuland: "I don't have anything for you on that subject at all."
After a third reporter tried her luck and got more variations on "no comment," a fourth reporter spoke up. Was Nuland not saying anything, he asked, "because members of this group just attacked [the] U.S. Embassy this morning in Kabul?" The reference was to the series of coordinated attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO compound earlier that day.
"I have nothing further to say on this subject," Nuland responded.
Unconfirmed though it may be, the report of a possible Taliban office in Qatar has followed a potentially related development. Two weeks ago, the insurgent group's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, released a statement suggesting that he was open to negotiations with the United States to end the war.
That's something the White House has pushed for. In an interview with the BBC this spring, President Obama said: "There needs to be a political settlement. Ultimately, it means talking to the Taliban."
Maybe he's about to do exactly that?
-- Heather Maher