- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2012

U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials this week have offered contradicting accounts about the purpose of the Taliban establishing an office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

American and Afghan officials have framed it as part of peace talks, but the Taliban have denied any talks have occurred. Skeptics say they believe the Taliban are after tactical gain rather than a peace process.

“The Taliban are mostly interested in talks about prisoner release - senior officials either at Guantanamo or Bagram [Air Base], or local cease-fires, rather than peace,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who chaired the Obama administration’s first Afghanistan war strategy review in 2009.

Mr. Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expressed doubt that the Taliban are interested in peace, especially since one of their suicide bombers last fall killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the Afghan High Peace Council.

Anthony Cordesman, a military strategist at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, said developments in Pakistan are not conducive for peace talks. Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported the Afghan Taliban had reached out to the Pakistan Taliban for help against international forces in Afghanistan.

“You have a major set of negotiations going on between different elements of the Taliban that are going in the opposite direction,” Mr. Cordesman said.

In addition, the Taliban’s perception that international troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014 diminishes their incentive to reach a peace deal with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, he said.

“The Taliban believe if it can outlast the [international forces], have a sanctuary in Pakistan, it basically can win this war as a matter of political attrition,” Mr. Cordesman said.

The purpose of the Qatar office is unclear, due to contradictory statements from the U.S., Afghanistan and Taliban.

In its statement announcing the establishment of the office Tuesday, the Taliban rejected reports that it was engaged in negotiations with Western officials.

But a State Department official framed the office as a positive step in terms of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “talk, fight and build” strategy, in which the U.S. would build Afghan governance, continue to fight and explore political reconciliation.

The official insisted that any talks with the Taliban would be Afghan-led and that the U.S. is in a supporting role to the Afghan government. U.S. officials previously have confirmed they have had “preliminary contacts” with the Taliban but have declined to provide details.

Yet a statement issued by the Afghan government said it supports talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, but the negotiations were not Afghan-led.

Afghanistan agrees with the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban for the sake of peace in Afghanistan and in order for the country to rid itself of imposed war, conspiracies and the killing of innocent people. We want the talks to be Afghan led and Afghan owned which is not the case yet,” Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said this week.

Pressed for clarification on whether he meant ongoing or future talks, he deferred to U.S. and Taliban officials, citing media reports that said “the U.S. is engaged with the Taliban in order to open an office for them in Qatar.”

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor on Wednesday vigorously denied a report in London’s Guardian newspaper that said the U.S. agreed in principle to releasing Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in exchange for the opening of the Qatar office.

U.S. laws make releasing the prisoners almost impossible, said Wells Dixon, a lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing most of the 171 detainees at Guantanamo.

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