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U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland wouldn't be budged.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland wouldn't be budged.

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

Mary Pendleton was Washington's ambassador in Chisinau from 1992 to 1995.
Mary Pendleton was Washington's ambassador in Chisinau from 1992 to 1995.
On August 31, RFE/RL spoke to Mary Pendleton, Washington’s first ambassador in Chisinau (1992-1995), on the sidelines of an event at the National Endowment for Democracy called "Moldova’s Transition: 20 Years of Challenges and Successes."

She told RFE/RL that the pace of democratic reform in the tiny country has fallen short of initial expectations, at least partially due to early Western hope for post-Soviet countries that outstripped reality.

"[Moldova] fell short of everybody's expectations because everybody's expectations were unreasonable -- unrealistic," she said.

"We all expected it to move along a lot faster than it did, for everything to be resolved quickly, and we never expected in 1992 that the Transnistria problem would still be there.

"We never expected that with all the work they did to get their legal system into place that there would be such serious problems with corruption and trafficking of people. The laws are there -- it’s just a matter of enforcing them and strengthening the system."

On August 31, 1989, Moldova’s Supreme Soviet passed a law allowing for the use of Latin script for the Romanian language -- a linguistic precursor of more profound changes to come.

But even this change, Pendleton recalls, came more slowly than she had expected.

As late as 1992, she says, the National Opera’s program used Cyrillic script.

“Even until 1993, I would get menus in Cyrillic -- but that was because many didn’t yet have typewriters with Latin letters,” says the ambassador.

One of Pendleton’s favorite anecdotes from independent Moldova’s nascent years involves the U.S. government’s efforts to buy its embassy property -- no easy task in the early days of privatization:

"[Moldovan President Mircea Snegur] called me up one day and said, 'OK madam ambassador, you can go and buy your property.' So I called the mayor [of Chisinau] and talked to him about it and he said, 'Oh no, you can't do this. You're not a physical person.' I didn't know what that meant -- I thought I was pretty human, you know!

He said, 'You're not buying it for yourself, you're buying it on behalf of your government, so you're a non-physical person. So you have to go back to the parliament and tell them to do an amendment [to the new property ownership laws] to include non-physical persons’ -- which we did, and ultimately they did. In August 1995, two weeks before I left Moldova, we were able to complete the purchase. It was important not only for us but also for the Moldovans, because it gave them the money to buy their own embassy property in the United States."

Pendleton says she’s optimistic that further democratic reform is coming to Moldova, but adds that even 20 years after independence, the pace of that change still leaves some Western observers impatient.

-- Richard Solash

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