A decision by the Afghan Taliban to set up a liaison office in Qatar is the first concrete step in a decade by the militants toward a peace deal, but it shuts out a key negotiating partner — Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Tuesday that the office in Qatar will conduct negotiations only with the "international community."
"There are two essential sides in the current situation in the country that has been ongoing for the past 10 years. One is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the other side is the United States of America and their foreign allies," Mr. Mujahid said in an e-mailed statement, according to the Associated Press.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan refers to the country's name under Taliban rule.
The Taliban want to set up a political office for negotiations, and have "reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community," he added.
Mr. Karzai has insisted that peace negotiations must be an Afghan-led process. His government has set three preconditions for such talks: the militants must renounce al Qaeda, give up arms and respect the Afghan constitution.
The U.S. also has supported an Afghan-led reconciliation process.
Afghan-led efforts stalled in September, when a Taliban suicide bomber assassinated former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed a national council dedicated to brokering peace with the militants.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is "prepared to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation."
"In any negotiated settlement at the end of a conflict, there has to be a negotiation," she said. "So the question is whether this office, were it to open, could play a positive role in that."
Support from Pakistan and militant groups in the region, including the Haqqani Network, mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami, and the Pakistani Taliban, are key to the success of any peace agreement in Afghanistan.
Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the State Department, criticized the Obama administration for overlooking the contradictions in its Afghan policy.
"How can the United States reconcile talks, which would give the Taliban a share of power and at the same time have a strategic relationship with Afghanistan whose principle purpose is to leave U.S. forces on ground," said Mr. Weinbaum, a Middle East Institute scholar.
"Karzai has made it pretty clear that he will set the terms, but we are so anxious for a soft landing by 2014 that we have this policy, which they view as grasping at straws," he added.
The Taliban are opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has set a 2014 deadline to drawdown most U.S. troops.
Mr. Karzai initially had opposed plans to open a Taliban office in Qatar. Last month, his government recalled its ambassador to Qatar for consultations following reports that the Taliban were planning to open an office.
Mr. Karzai has since had a change of heart. Last week, he said his government would support a plan to open a Taliban office in Qatar, though it would prefer the office to be located in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, said one statement by the Taliban does not cut out the Afghan government.
"After all it is rather difficult to imagine an Afghan political process without the government. However, statements of commitment to an Afghan-led process can sometimes be rhetorical instead of substantive," he said.
The Taliban's spokesman demanded the release of five Afghan prisoners at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who are believed to have ties to the Taliban.
The Taliban abducted Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 25, in 2009.
The Afghan government has not commented on the Taliban statement.
Mr. Semple said the Taliban announcement was "bad news for al Qaeda and for those who have made a career out of permanent jihad."
"Nobody quite knows what the formula for mediation will be, but the most optimistic way to look at this development is that this is the beginning of the end," he added.
• Guy Taylor contributed to this report.
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