- Associated Press - Thursday, January 12, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban’s political wing is ready to enter peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, but the insurgents will in the meantime continue their armed struggle, the group said Thursday.

The militant movement’s emailed statement suggests that efforts to bring Afghan factions to the table are gathering momentum, but also highlights some of the roadblocks on the way to any settlement — in particular, the Taliban’s insistence that the government of President Hamid Karzai is an illegitimate “stooge” of the West.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the militants had been fighting for the past 15 years to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan “in accordance with the request of its people.”

“It is for this purpose and for bringing about peace and stability in Afghanistan that we have increased our political efforts to come to mutual understanding with the world in order to solve the current ongoing situation,” Mujahid said in an emailed statement.

“But this understanding does not mean a surrender from jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration.”

One of the international community’s and Afghan government’s conditions for reconciliation is that the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution, meaning they must recognize Karzai’s government. Mujahid’s outright rejection of this is likely to be a key obstacle in the peace process.

For the past month, rumors have swirled about the possibility of peace talks between the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and the Taliban in the Gulf nation of Qatar.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to acknowledge U.S. efforts to jump-start a peace process with the Islamic militants in order to help bring an end to the decade-long war. Washington has been mulling releasing several Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo as a confidence-building measure.

Clinton also indicated progress on the related effort to open a political representative office for the Taliban in Qatar, whose role as would-be host for peace talks gained reluctant approval from President Karzai last month.

But she said that any power-sharing deal would also have to involve insurgents renouncing violence, breaking with al-Qaida and respecting Afghanistan’s constitution, including rights guaranteed to women and minorities.

The United States and its coalition allies are preparing to withdraw most of their forces and end their combat role in 2014, when responsibility for security will be in the hands of the greatly expanded Afghan army and police.

But despite a surge of foreign troops into Afghanistan in the past two years, and an overwhelming superiority in both numbers and firepower, the military effort has been unable to defeat the insurgency. Many now fear that a resurgent Taliban will be able to exploit the withdrawal of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force over the next three years by recapturing wide areas of the south and east.

As a result, the Obama administration and its allies appear to have gradually embraced talks as the best way to end the war, even if fighting continues beyond the deadline to withdraw foreign combat forces in 2014. Although the U.S. says those talks must be led by the Karzai government, it has made its own contacts with Taliban representatives over the last year.

Unlike those earlier exploratory discussions, any negotiations that might take place in Qatar will likely be aimed at drawing the Taliban movement formally into the political process.

The NATO force in Afghanistan meanwhile said a service member died in eastern Afghanistan from a “non-battle-related” injury Wednesday. A statement from the coalition did not give details or provide the service member’s nationality.

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