KABUL // The Afghan Taliban is to set up a political office in Qatar, in a move seen by western and Afghan officials as a crucial step forward amid secretive attempts to reach a negotiated end to a decade of war in Afghanistan.
It was welcomed by one of the Afghan government’s top peace negotiators as a “gesture of good faith” from a group that in the past has laid down strict conditions for any talks, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces.
“We are right now ready … to have a political office overseas, in order to have an understanding with the international community,”spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. “In this regard we have reached an initial understanding with Qatar and relevant sites.”
The Afghan government had wanted an office in Saudi Arabia or Qatar, but said last month it would accept a Taliban liaison office in Qatar if Kabul kept control of the negotiating process.
A senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, the body charged with seeking a negotiated end to the country’s decade-long war, welcomed the decision.
“It is important for the Taliban to negotiate with the international community, especially with the US, and we welcome their decision to set up a political office,” Arsala Rahmani, a top negotiator on the high peace council, said. “It is a gesture of good faith.”
There are still about 130,000 US-led forces fighting the Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan, with coalition combat troops set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control for security to Afghan forces.But the United States and its Nato allies have been pressing for political solutions to secure an end to the war.
Senior US officials said last month that, after 10 months, talks with the Taliban had reached a critical juncture, and as part of the accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy, the US is considering the transfer of several high-profile Taliban prisoners into Afghan custody from its Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.
The Taliban are holding Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old US army sergeant, who is the only US soldier held by the insurgents. He was taken prisoner in June 2009.
From the American perspective, other trust-building measures would involve assurances that the insurgents cut ties with al Qaeda, accept the elected civilian government of Afghanistan and bargain in good faith.
The Taliban announcement came as three explosions killed 13 people in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. The dead include a child and four police officers.
A suicide bomber on a motorcycle struck in the morning, killing four civilians and a policeman. In the early evening, two more blasts went off within minutes of each other at a central Kandahar road junction. Five civilians were killed, including a child, and three policemen died. Ten other people were wounded in the evening’s two bombings.
The call for a permanent international address for the Taliban came after a series of failed efforts towards talks by Afghans and their western allies, some of them with interlocutors who turned out to be frauds.
These culminated in the September 2011 killing of the Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s top peace envoy, the former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, by a man accepted as a Taliban representative, which appeared to temporarily destroy the president’s appetite for negotiations.
An office in Qatar would also address Afghan worries about the influence of the Pakistani government over the insurgent group, whose leaders are mostly believed to be based across the border from their homeland.
But Afghan leaders have expressed concern that any office be used only as an address for negotiators to verify the identity of anyone claiming to represent the Taliban, rather than as a base to build political clout.
They are also concerned about being marginalised in a process they do not control.
Mr Karzai declined immediate response to the statement, but may be concerned by its emphasis only on communication with the international community – there is no reference to the current Afghan government.
Both the president’s team and US officials working on negotiations have repeatedly insisted that they be “Afghan-led” but the Taliban statement explicitly casts their war as a battle only with foreigners.
“The two main sides which were involved in this are the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and on the other side is the United States and their foreign allies,” Mr Mujahid said, using the Afghan Taliban’s own name for its movement.
The Taliban statement also dismissed as untrue reports about talks that appeared in the “western press”, and specified that the office was aimed at improving ties – suggesting any further progress might be slow.
* Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse