Storm over opening of Taliban mission

Khalid Ahmad Zakaria, Afghanistan's ambassador to Qatar, has been recalled amid reports that the Gulf state is preparing to host a political office for the Taliban — the Islamist insurgent group's first overseas mission since it was thrown out of power after 9/11.

Mr. Zakaria's recall came two days after The Hindu reported that the Taliban held discussions with top western diplomats that had paved the way for the office to be opened within weeks.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Afghan foreign ministry thanked Qatar for its assistance in rebuilding the war-torn country, but added that its ambassador was being recalled for consultations because of “recent developments in Afghanistan and the region, including the relations between Afghanistan and Qatar.”

The foreign ministry has offered no official explanation for its action, but a high-ranking official told Agencé France Press the government was angered by the failure of Qatar to consult Kabul on its discussions with the Taliban. He said that while the United States and Germany had briefed Afghanistan on their secret contacts with the Taliban, Qatar chose to “not allow the Afghan government into these talks”.

Western diplomats hope that the opening of a Taliban office would facilitate talks for a peace deal in which the Islamist group would be given a share of power in return for ending violence, and severing its connections to jihadist groups of international reach, like al-Qaeda.

But hopes of a deal were dealt a heavy blow in September, when an assassin posing as a Taliban envoy killed Afghanistan's top peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani — an attack the country blamed on Pakistan's ISI.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has since been ambivalent about talks. He ruled out an early resumption of negotiations, saying Afghanistan would talk only to Pakistan “until we have an address for the Taliban.”

It remains unclear if plans to open the office will survive Mr. Zakaria's recall, though Afghan sources told The Hindu they do not oppose it in principle.

Former Taliban diplomat Mullah Muhammad Zaeef, who The Hindu had identified as a possible candidate to head the mission, has denied any knowledge either of the political office or his prospective role in it.

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