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By their own admission, the Taliban hope to win the release of about five prisoners from the U.S. lockup at Guantanamo Bay.

The militants have taken a pounding in their southern heartland, and foreign troops have escalated a campaign against them in eastern Afghanistan. Hundreds of their low- and middle-level commanders have been picked up in night raids carried out by Afghan and coalition forces.

Talks have been held in the past about a location for a Taliban office, and other locations included Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But Qatar apparently emerged as a preferred neutral Islamic country where the U.S. also has a large military presence.

“The Taliban have chosen Qatar because it supported their government, and the Americans chose it because they have their big military and intelligence base in Qatar,” said Abdul Hadi Khaled, an ethnic Tajik who served as a deputy interior minister in Karzai’s Cabinet.

“Overall I hope that this is a start, but the rest of the work should be in this country and the Afghan government should be fully involved in the peace process,” Khaled said.

The Taliban announcement came in the form of a statement e-mailed to the Kabul press corps and posted on the militants’ website.

“Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations,” said the statement, attributed to Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. “In this regard, we have started preliminary talks and we have reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community.”

The statement did not say when the office would open.

One member of the Taliban negotiating team has been publicly identified as Tayyab Aga, an emissary of Pakistan-based Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Other participants include a former Taliban ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a former Taliban deputy health minister, a senior Afghan official in the region said recently on condition that he not be identified.

The Taliban statement indicated that the liaison office will conduct negotiations with the international community but not with the Afghan government — a condition that Karzai has indicated he would reject.

“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,” Mujahid said, referring to the name of Afghanistan under Taliban rule more than a decade ago.

Karzai’s office had no immediate comment.

The prospect of formal peace talks suffered a serious setback in September when Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and the head of the High Peace Council, was assassinated by an attacker posing as a Taliban peace emissary.

After Rabbani’s death, Karzai said peace efforts could take place only if the Taliban established a political office that would be authorized to conduct talks.

Last month, Karzai initially balked when the plan for Qatar appeared to have been settled without him, officials said, and recalled his ambassador to Doha for consultations. Karzai backed down in late December.

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