Secretary of State John Kerry personally pleaded with Hamid Karzai to keep alive the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban. Over the course of two phone calls with the Afghan president, Kerry reportedly gave assurances that the U.S. would not give the Taliban political recognition.
Karzai had called off the previously agreed to peace talks after the insurgent group tried to present themselves as an alternative government-in-exile at the office that they opened Tuesday in Qatar.
The Afghan government was furious that the Taliban flew a white flag and hung a sign outside the office that described it as the representative of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of the old Taliban government. It was supposed to be called the Political Office of the Afghan Taliban, according to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.
American officials at the State Department have scrambled over the past 24 hours to ease Afghan concerns over what essentially amounts to a Taliban publicity coup. Psaki told reporters that Kerry agreed with Karzai that the Taliban's actions were "inappropriate." U.S. officials scrambled to get the Qatari government to take down the offending flag and nameplate which the U.S. said were in violation of the previously agreed to proposal for the Doha office.
Qatar - which has diplomatic relations with the Taliban - allowed the group to set up an office in Doha with the express purpose of hosting peace talks with the Afghan government. Psaki said that the U.S. was "disappointed by the role out on the ground" but that it is continuing a diplomatic push for negotiations.
Those efforts to cool tensions may have had some effect.
A senior U.S. official with knowledge of the negotiations said that the U.S. talks with the Taliban are still likely to be held within the next few days in Doha, Qatar. American officials are worried that their painstaking efforts to restart peace talks may be damaged. The Taliban was already reluctant to negotiate with Hamid Karzai's government but it was willing to discuss issues of mutual interest with the U.S. The Taliban is expected to request the return of a handful of its fighters who are being held in Guantanamo Bay prison. Among other topics, the U.S. wants to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl who is believed to be held by a group aligned with the Taliban.
American diplomats saw the Taliban's willingness to engage as a toehold and leveraged it to try to unlock the peace process that had been deadlocked for more than 18 months. Both Kerry and Karzai have previously said that they would like to see the Taliban lay down its arms and to become part of the political process in Afghanistan. The end goal is to ultimately get them to repudiate ties with Al Qaeda and to accept the Afghan constitution which recognizes the rights of women and minorities. At this point, getting the Afghans to the peace table is a struggle.
Yet U.S. officials say that they are committed to pursuing the diplomatic path. The date of the first U.S.-Taliban meeting has not yet been set but it is unlikely that it would take place until after the weekend. Kerry is scheduled to be in Doha on Saturday for bilateral meetings with Qatari officials and will discuss the Afghan issue among others. The Qatari government has previously acted as an emissary between the Taliban and the U.S. government.
If the peace talks are scheduled, the first U.S. official to publicly meet with the Taliban will be Ambassador James Dobbins. He is the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan and plans to fly to Doha to negotiate face-to-face with the Taliban representatives. U.S. officials have not had direct contact with the Taliban since 2011. A host of governments - including Pakistan, Germany and Qatar - have helped the U.S. to communicate with the insurgent group. Technically the Taliban is considered a specially designated global terrorist entity under Executive Order 13224.
The U.S. wants to diplomatically engage with the Taliban while U.S. and ISAF troops continue to fight its insurgents on the ground in Afghanistan. Whether the two can "fight and talk" remains to be seen.