x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Afghanistan sets ground rules for Taliban peace talks in Qatar

Afghanistan will accept a Taliban liaison office in Doha to start peace talks but no foreign power can get involved in the process without its consent

KABUL // Afghanistan will accept a Taliban liaison office in Qatar to start peace talks but no foreign power can get involved in the process without its consent, the government's peace council said, as efforts gather pace to find a solution to the decade-long war.

Afghanistan's High Peace Council, in a note to foreign missions, has set out ground rules for engaging the Taliban after Kabul grew concerned that the US and Qatar, helped by Germany, had secretly agreed with the Taliban to open an office in Doha.

US officials have held about half a dozen meetings with their insurgent contacts, mostly in Germany and Doha with representatives of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban's Quetta Shura, this year to prepare the way for face-to-face talks between the group and the Afghan government.

A representative office for the group is considered the starting point for such talks and Doha has in the past served as a meeting ground for initial contacts.

But the Afghan peace commission, which has suffered a series of setbacks such as the assassination of its head in September, said that negotiations with the Taliban could only begin after they stopped violence against civilians, cut ties to Al Qaeda and accepted the Afghan constitution, which guarantees civil rights and liberties, including rights for women.

The council, according to a copy of the 11-point note, also said any peace process with the Taliban would have to have the support of Pakistan since members of the insurgent group were based there.

"The Islamic republic of Afghanistan is in agreement regarding the opening of an office for the armed opposition, but only to move forward the peace process and conduct negotiations," the council said.

The government would prefer such an office in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey, both of which it is close to, but was not averse to Doha as long as the authority of the Afghan state was not eroded and the office was only established for talks, officials said.

"We are saying Saudi or Turkey are preferable, we are not saying it has to be there only. The only condition is it should be in an Islamic country," said a government official.

President Hamid Karzai's administration recalled its ambassador from Doha last week, apparently angry that it had been kept in the dark about the latest round of contacts with the insurgent group.

Officials said Kabul was deeply concerned about reports that the US was considering the transfer of a small number of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay military prison to Doha as a prelude to the talks.

"We are a sovereign country, we have laws. How can you transfer our prisoners from one country to another. Already it's a violation to have them in Guantanamo Bay," the official said.

The Afghan government wanted the prisoners to be returned to its custody, the official added.

This month, the US was considering the transfer of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay into Afghan government custody as part of accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy.

"We have no problem with this. In fact, we have been demanding this for a while. These are Afghan prisoners," said the official, who declined to be identified.

The tension between the Karzai administration and the US over engaging the Taliban underscores the challenges of seeking a political settlement as the West prepares to withdraw most combat troops from the country by 2014.

Efforts to engage the insurgent group have faced a string of setbacks, the most recent being the assassination of the head of the peace council, the former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September at the hands of a suicide bomber who pretended to be a Taliban emissary.

It led to a hardening of positions, with Mr Karzai saying the government could not talk to suicide bombers and that there should be an address for the Taliban so that negotiators knew they were talking to the right representatives.

"We are committed to the reconciliation process, the experience of the last 10 years shows no military solution is possible. Talking to the armed opposition is the key in this regard," said the presidential spokesman, Aimal Faizi.

The peace council said Pakistani support was necessary for talks to take place, another condition that makes the task harder because of fraught ties between the US and Pakistan, which fears it is being shut out of the process.

Opening a Taliban office in a third country is seen as a way to create distance from Pakistan, which has long-standing ties to the insurgent group.

But the Afghan official did not think the peace council had laid down such tough conditions that the talks would fail before they started.

"We don't think it's a deal breaker. We are quite optimistic."