Afghan Taliban ‘Ready’ for Overseas Office

Posted January 3rd, 2012 at 3:10 pm (UTC-5)
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The Afghan Taliban says it is ready to open an overseas political office in the Gulf state of Qatar, in a move that could help facilitate peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan.

The announcement came Tuesday in an e-mailed statement from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. He said the office would help his group “reach an understanding with the international community.” However, the statement makes no mention of the Afghan government, which the Taliban has called a “puppet” regime.

The Taliban statement also asks for the release of prisoners held at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba as part of any peace deal.

Members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council welcomed the Taliban announcement Tuesday. Afghan officials originally had resisted the idea of a Taliban liaison office in Qatar, and the September assassination of President Hamid Karzai's peace envoy, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, appeared to seriously set back efforts to reach a peace deal.

But President Karzai later said his government would accept the liaison office. In December, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden also said the Afghan Taliban is not an enemy of America and does not represent a threat to the United States as long as it does not harbor al-Qaida terrorists.

Media reports have quoted U.S. officials as saying that Washington is open to negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban, and that a possible deal could include the transfer of Taliban prisoners.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann tells VOA that Qatar represents a neutral place for the sides to meet, as it does not have the close traditional ties with Washington that Saudi Arabia and Turkey enjoy. Both of those countries had been named as the possible site for the Taliban liaison office.

The move to Qatar also takes the peace process away from Pakistan, which traditionally has had strong ties to Taliban leadership. Since the start of the war, Islamabad had offered to play a role in brokering peace.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan, Rustam Shah, said the announcement of the Qatar office was a “major breakthrough in the Afghan reconciliation process.” He also said “it showed that the Taliban's role as a political force has been accepted” as efforts increase to “install a national unity government in Afghanistan before the American withdrawal.”

NATO combat troops are scheduled to pull out from Afghanistan in 2014.