- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 3, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban announced Tuesday that they will open an office in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar to hold talks with the United States, an unprecedented step toward a peace process that might lead to a winding down of the 10-year war in Afghanistan.

Although U.S. and Taliban representatives have met secretly several times over the past year in Europe and the Persian Gulf, this is the first time the Islamist insurgent group has publicly expressed willingness for substantive negotiations.

In recent months, the idea of a Taliban political office in the Qatari capital of Doha has become a central element in U.S. efforts to draw the insurgents into such talks. The idea is to give the Taliban more legitimacy to negotiate in a location that presumably would at least partly shield them from Pakistani pressure.

Asked about the Taliban announcement, White House spokesman Jay Carney welcomed “any step … of the Afghan-led process toward reconciliation.” He noted that “peace cannot come to Afghanistan without a political settlement.”

But negotiations could falter if they do not sufficiently involve President Hamid Karzai’s government, which the Taliban have dismissed as a puppet regime. Karzai’s inner circle derailed last year’s behind-the-scenes talks, and the Afghan leader only grudgingly agreed to the idea of the Taliban’s setting up a liaison office in Qatar.

Another potential spoiler is Pakistan, which houses most of the Taliban leadership as well as the Haqqani network, which carries out major attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Pakistan believes it should have a say in any talks involving neighboring Afghanistan, which it fears will develop an alliance with its archrival, India.

Pakistan has rejected U.S. requests to mount an offensive against the Haqqani network, and relations between the two countries are at an all-time low following a cross-border incident that resulted in NATO airstrikes killing 24 Pakistani soldiers.

As the United States begins to draw down the nearly 100,000 forces it has in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama’s administration wants to use its current extensive military campaign and an acknowledged but incomplete plan for a long-term American presence in the country as leverage to draw the Taliban into talks with Karzai representatives.

The likelihood that the Taliban will remain a potent fighting force after most foreign forces leave by the end of 2014 is driving the U.S. and NATO to seek even an incomplete bargain with the insurgents that would keep them talking with the Kabul government.

For the U.S., one goal of such talks would be to identify cease-fire zones that could be used as a steppingstone toward a full peace agreement that stops most fighting.

The gradual process of handing over areas of the country to Afghan security control would ideally be marshaled toward encouraging peace talks, by identifying areas where a cease-fire could be tested, a senior administration official told The Associated Press last week.

Obama is hosting a NATO summit in his hometown of Chicago in May that will focus on Afghanistan, and his administration would like some good news to announce in an election year. U.S. officials are always careful to say that talks with the Taliban are not a reward for good behavior, but rather that they serve American interests.

“You don’t negotiate with your friends,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday.

“But this process will only be successful if those Taliban are prepared to renounce violence, break ties with al Qaeda, support the Afghan constitution in all of its elements, including human rights for all citizens, and particularly for women,” Nuland said.

It was unclear why the Taliban agreed publicly to hold talks. Previously, the official Taliban position was no talks until the U.S.-led coalition leaves Afghanistan.

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