- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Afghan Taliban is ready to exchange prisoners with the United States and is “optimistic” about engaging in peace talks after it opens its office in Qatar, the militant group’s spokesman said this week.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Washington Times that “definitely both sides will exchange its prisoners as soon as the deal is done,” adding that Americans have been dealing with Taliban diplomats and Qatari lobbyists.

U.S. officials have been reluctant to discuss details of a possible prisoner exchange or their involvement in opening the Qatar office.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. had “not made any decisions about releasing any Taliban from Guantanamo [Bay].”

Asked whether the office may lead to peace talks with the U.S. someday, Mr. Ahmadi said: “We are optimistic and would definitely come up with some sort of agreement.”

Regional specialists have expressed doubt that the Taliban are interested in peace talks ahead of the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official, said the U.S. must “go into this process with a healthy degree of skepticism … and not [be] under any illusion that the Taliban will be easy to negotiate with.”

U.S. officials insist that any peace talks will be Afghan-led. But direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban halted last fall after the Taliban assassinated the head of the Afghan peace council.

Mr. Ahmadi said the Taliban would prefer to talk with U.S. officials rather than the Afghan government.

Marc Grossman, special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will go to Afghanistan and Qatar next week.

He will travel in support of Afghan-led reconciliation and will meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, other Afghans and Qataris, as well as representatives of other regional governments, according to an official statement.

“A lot of this is quite sensitive, quite delicate. So I think we need to let Ambassador Grossman go out there and do some diplomacy and see what might result,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.

Mr. Ahmadi said the Taliban agreed that Qatar is the best place to talk since its government previously had recognized it and “financially and logistically supported our soldiers.”

He also said an email that the Taliban had discussed the Qatar office with the “Emirates Amir, Mullah Omar, our best friends in Pakistan Government and Tehrik Taliban Pakistan.”

Tehrik-i-Taliban, often referred to as the Pakistan Taliban, consists of more than a dozen insurgent groups. Pakistan’s government has denied any links with militants, but its intelligence agency is widely believed to have ties with such groups.

The U.S. has placed a $10 million bounty for Mullah Omar, who as leader of the Afghan Taliban oversaw a repressive regime that hosted Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network before and after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks..



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