The Afghan government on Sunday pushed the US for answers on how Taliban rebels were allowed to open an office in Qatar that resembled an embassy, but said it remained committed to the peace process.
A Taliban spokesman also dismissed reports that the insurgents could cancel future peace talks and were determined to keep the office’s sign and flag — provocative symbols which Kabul has described as unacceptable.
The sign used the formal name of “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan” from the rebels’ 1996-2001 government, and the white Taliban flag was seen by many Afghans as a grim reminder of the cruelties of Taliban rule.
The opening of the Qatar office last Tuesday was intended as a first step towards a peace deal as the US-led NATO combat mission ends next year, but the Afghan government accused the rebels of posing as a government-in-exile.
Foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said on Sunday that Afghanistan “remained fully committed to the peace process” if conditions over the Qatar office were met.
“We still need a full explanation about what happened and why the office was established in clear contradiction to the written assurances given to the Afghan government by the US,” he told reporters.
He added that the office could only be used for direct peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and could not be used for fund-raising or other purposes.
Afghanistan released a statement saying that one of its senior peace negotiators reported that the disputed flag, flagpole and sign had all been removed from the rebels’ office in Qatar.
The Taliban on Sunday denied they may pull out of any peace talks after the public dispute derailed early efforts to end 12 years of fighting.
Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that an anonymous “Taliban official” quoted in Saturday’s New York Times suggesting the rebels may cancel talks did not represent the movement’s views.
“(The Taliban) has its own spokespersons who provides information to the media,” Mujahid said in a statement. “Anyone except these spokespersons giving information, it would not be (information) from the Islamic Emirate.”
Mohammed Naeem, a Qatar-based spokesman for the Taliban, said separately that the flag and sign unveiled at an opening ceremony had been agreed with Qatar — but not with the United States.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Qatar on Saturday, attempted to placate Afghanistan by warning that Washington could call on the Taliban to close the office if they failed to live up to their side of peace efforts.
President Hamid Karzai, furious over the Taliban office, broke off ongoing Afghan-US talks on an agreement that would allow Washington to maintain soldiers in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends.
About 100,000 foreign combat troops, 68,000 of them from the US, are due to withdraw, and NATO formally transferred responsibility for nationwide security to Afghan forces a week ago.
When in power, the Taliban imposed a harsh version of Sunni Islamic law that banned television, music and cinema, stopped girls from going to school and forced woman to wear the all-covering burqa.
They were ousted in 2001 for sheltering the Al-Qaeda militants behind the 9/11 attacks, but launched a resilient and bloody insurgency against US-led NATO troops and the US-backed Afghan government.