Earlier this month, the Taliban opened an official office in Doha, landing Qatar once more in Western headlines. That might have been part of Qatar’s plan: the decision to host such a controversial office is symptomatic of a desire to play a central role in a wide array of important diplomatic issues. Yet the debacle of the office’s first 36 hours shows just how far Qatar still has to go.
No sooner had the office opened, on June 18, than the trouble began. Despite assurances from the Americans and Qataris to the Afghan government that the office would be relatively low-key and would not resemble an embassy, the Taliban spokesman who opened the office did everything in his power to imply that he was representing a state. The Taliban anthem was played, an official plaque outside referred to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Afghanistan’s name under Taliban rule), and the flag of the Taliban in Afghanistan was raised at a mini opening ceremony. The media circus around the events did nothing to dispel the images of nationhood and power.
Karzai reacted furiously, recanting on promises to send negotiators and pulling out of talks with the United States. The U.S. airbase at Bagram also came under Taliban fire, leaving four U.S. personnel dead. After some frantic diplomacy on the part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Qataris forced the Taliban to lower the flag -- apparently by cutting the flagpole in half and then removing it entirely. But the damage had been done, and the Taliban had scored a significant diplomatic victory.
The Qatari authorities could never have been expected to have total control over the Taliban, but they could have been expected to at least extract some guarantees that the Taliban would behave itself on opening week. (After all, what else would funding the office in its entirety have been for?)
Like the opening of the Taliban office, the talks that are supposed to take