Afghanistan's Taliban have temporarily closed their new office in Qatar, abandoning a diplomatic approach seen as the best hope of finding a political end to the protracted 12-year war and vowing to fight on against President Hamid Karzai's government.
Experts said the final withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan next year offered the Taliban the hope of a military victory while limiting their incentive to press ahead with peace talks. The Taliban, they said, saw the talks more as a means of gaining legitimacy.
"I think the big gorilla in the room is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It decreases the likelihood of a settlement because it raises the prospects of Taliban military gains," said Seth Jones, a counter-insurgency expert at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank. "Settlements usually occur when both sides reach a stalemate and see little prospect for change in the foreseeable future."
The Taliban office, which opened less than a month ago to facilitate peace talks with the US and Afghan governments, was mired in controversy from the outset after the religious movement was accused of trying to set up a government-in-exile by identifying its office as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
It also hoisted the same white flag flown during the Taliban's five-year rule that ended with the 2001 US-led invasion.
Karzai reacted furiously and the Taliban lowered the flag and removed the sign. Now the office has been temporarily closed, a Taliban official familiar with the talks in Qatar said.
"They [the Taliban] do not go out of their homes in Doha and have not gone to the office since the removal of the flag and the plaque," the Taliban official said by telephone. He said the Taliban blamed Karzai and the US for the breakdown in talks, accusing both of using the name and the flag as an excuse.
In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the closure.