Published On: Tue, Oct 3rd, 2017

U.S. Weighs Fate of Taliban Political Office, Prompting Internal Objection

State Department specialists sent dissent cable urging more-intensive talks to end Afghanistan war

By Dion Nissenbaum

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is considering a plan that would aim to close the Taliban political office in Qatar, a move that triggered an unusual internal protest by State Department officials who said it would undermine U.S. interests in Afghanistan, according to current and former U.S. officials.

A group of State Department specialists on South Asia filed the rare internal “dissent channel cable” on Friday to urge that the U.S. keep the Taliban office open and launch more-intensive talks to end the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, according to people familiar with the move.

The memo was signed by a handful of officials, the people said, including some longtime State Department employees whose contracts with the department expired on Friday and weren’t renewed.

“We are grateful for the previous team’s hard work in trying to promote peace and reconciliation,” said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman. “Talented officials from within the system will continue these efforts. Our willingness to support a reconciliation process is not in question; the willingness of the Taliban to seriously engage is.”

The unclassified memo to top State Department leaders urged them to keep the Taliban office open to help ensure that a serious push for peace talks isn’t put on the back burner while the U.S. sends 4,000 more U.S. forces into Afghanistan to try to break a battlefield stalemate with the Taliban.

In the internal memo, the experts said that closing the Taliban office in Qatar could undermine President Donald Trump’s attempts to extricate the U.S. from a war that has claimed more than 3,500 American lives since 2001, according to people familiar with the move.

“Not having a line of effort with a clear focus on a political process seems contrary to his interests, as well as being bad policy,” one former U.S. official said in an interview.

So-called dissent channel cables are meant to be used by State Department officials who feel that alternative views aren’t getting a fair hearing from top leaders. Last year, more than 50 foreign-service officers used the process to criticize the Obama administration strategy in Syria. Earlier this year, about 1,000 foreign-service officers signed a dissent cable protesting Mr. Trump’s first travel ban aimed at seven Muslim-majority nations.

The Taliban opened their Doha political office in 2013, with support from the U.S., Afghan and Qatari governments. Political leaders hoped the move would set the stage for serious peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But the initiative quickly stalled, and some U.S. officials say the Taliban office has been a disappointment.

Last month, Mr. Trump unveiled a new Afghanistan strategy that will increase the U.S. military force in Afghanistan from about 12,000 to about 16,000 in an effort to shore up Afghan forces struggling to repel Taliban advances across the country.

President Trump outlined his new stance to combat terrorism in Afghanistan on Monday night, saying that U.S. troops will continue to stay in the region and that the fight will only become more intense. The WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib gives us three takeaways from the speech. Photo: Getty

In an attempt to put more pressure on the Taliban, the administration is now looking at closing the Taliban office in Qatar, officials said. The move would need support from the Afghan government, which has been discussing the idea with U.S. officials.

The embassy of Afghanistan in Washington didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani recently said that the Afghan government wants to pursue serious peace talks. “We encourage all arrangements that support the peace process in Afghanistan,” said the spokesman, Dawa Khan Minapal. “But we want these efforts to lead to practical results.”

Qatar said the office has operated with U.S. and Afghan consent. “As with the opening of the office, any decision on the future of it rests with both the Government of the United States and the Government of Afghanistan,” said Sheikh Saif Bin Ahmed Al-Thani, director of the Qatari government’s communications office. “No matter the decision, Qatar will remain America’s strongest ally in the region, working to defeat terrorism and resolve global conflicts.”

The Taliban said recently that closing the Doha office would end the chance for a peaceful settlement to the war and put responsibility for continuing bloodshed in Afghanistan “squarely on the shoulders of the invaders and their allies.”

The Taliban presence in Qatar has long been a regional irritant, one that has fueled an unresolved feud between Doha and regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which want to see Taliban leaders kicked out of Doha.

In June, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing their neighbor of supporting terrorism and meddling in their affairs. Qatar denies the charges.

Some critics argue that Taliban officials in Qatar, including five former Guantanamo Bay detainees freed by the U.S. in 2014 in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, could pose a threat to American forces in Afghanistan by raising money for Taliban fighters or orchestrating attacks.

For months, the Trump administration has been split between two camps on peace talks, current and former officials said: The “fight and talk” group is pushing the U.S. to aggressively pursue peace talks with the Taliban now, even though the group’s battlefield victories have given it more political bargaining power. The people who signed the memo belong to this camp, current and former officials said.

“There’s a new team in place wanting to try new things,” said one former U.S. official. “Shaking up the peace process and kicking out the Doha negotiators would be a very unfortunate way of doing that.”

The “fight, then talk” camp, including Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, wants to deliver a battlefield blow to the Taliban before pursuing serious peace talks.

Officials at the National Security Council, which is run by Gen. McMaster, said the modest influx of new American forces, combined with Mr. Trump’s pledge to keep troops in Afghanistan as long as they are needed, will convince the Taliban that they can’t win on the battlefield.

“This will set conditions for the ultimate goal of our strategy: a peace settlement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban that protects our interests,” said a spokesperson for the council. “Those claiming to support a peace process should not be given the freedom to raise funds for fighters killing Afghan civilians and security forces. Instead, they must demonstrate they are substantively contributing to bringing a peaceful end to the conflict.”

Former U.S. officials said the formal objections may help persuade the Trump administration to find different ways to put pressure on the Taliban. A decision on the issue could come as soon as this week, the former officials said.

—Craig Nelson contributed to this article.


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