The US will make a decision soon about whether the controversial Taliban office in Doha should remain open to help secure a political channel with the group, the US defence secretary said on Tuesday.
The office was opened in 2013 with a 36-strong delegation to help start talks with the Taliban as part of the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“I think a decision will be made shortly” James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. One of the issues at hand was making sure the right people who represent the Taliban are in the office.
“The enemy [Taliban] is under pressure, they have a loss of leadership and have become increasingly fractious,” Mr Mattis said. While that was a good scenario militarily for the US “but politically it makes it more problematic to try to find out who actually speaks for Taliban.”
Mr Mattis, a retired general, said he had spoken with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the issue three times in the last ten days as they tried to ensure that it was “an office we can actually deal with” and not just a physical presence.
Any request to close the office would have to be made by Afghanistan, with the final decision up to Qatar.
“No decision has been made but I anticipate one would be made soon and we need to get certain information to make the right decision,” said Mr Mattis.
Donald Trump has been pushing the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, to close the Taliban mission in Qatar, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper. It said the Afghans saw the office as giving political legitimacy to a group controlled by Pakistan.
Husain Haqqani, of the Hudson Institute, and Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States told The National "there was little evidence that the office had influence with the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan, or with the group's leadership in Pakistan."
“Now that the [US] withdrawal is not taking place, and no advances have been made towards a political settlement, there seems to be little utility of Doha’s Taliban office,” he added.
“If and when the Taliban are ready to talk, I am sure means can be found to negotiate with them,” he said.
Mr Mattis made an unannounced visit to Qatar last week where he met the country’s political and military leadership.