The Taliban announced on Tuesday 03 Jan that they had come to an "initial agreement" to open their first political overseas office, possibly in Qatar, as part of peace talks with the United States.
In a statement on their purported website "Voice of Jihad", Taliban said they had held "preliminary talks with relevant sides including Qatar" to open an office outside Afghanistan, without confirming where it would be.
One of their demands would be for a prisoner exchange to include the release of inmates from the US-run detention facility Guantanamo Bay, they said. "We're now prepared, while having a strong presence inside (Afghanistan) to have a political office outside (Afghanistan) for negotiations," the statement said, reiterating the stance that all foreign troops must leave to end the war.
Focus on a political settlement
In a statement Taliban said: "The occupation of the country must be ended and Afghans must be allowed to create an Islamic government of their choice that is no harm to anyone."
But it rejected some media reports that negotiations with the US had begun. The comments come two days after Karzai made a public statement to welcome remarks by US Vice President Joe Biden that the Taliban "per se is not our enemy", saying it would help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Biden's comments to Newsweek magazine triggered controversy in the US but reflected an increasing focus on finding a political settlement. In the interview with Newsweek Biden emphasised the need for the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda.
As it pushes for a political settlement, the Afghan government has changed its tone towards the insurgents, referring to "terrorist" rather than "Taliban" attacks.
Office should be in Afghanistan
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said earlier that if security concerns make it impossible to set up a Taliban political office in Afghanistan, then it should be established in another Islamic country, like Saudi Arabia, or in Turkey. If the Taliban opened an office, it would be seen as a willingness to talk peace and signal their intention to try to find a nonviolent solution to an insurgency that has cost the lives of thousands.
The president met with top Afghan leaders at the palace on Thursday to discuss efforts to reconcile with the Taliban and find a political solution to the decade-long war. The leaders agreed that fighting should stop before any negotiations begin, Karzai's office said in a statement.
The newspaper report, quoting unnamed Indian diplomatic sources, said that Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, was among those being considered to head the office.
Zaeef, an ex-Taliban, told The Associated Press that he had not heard that plans for a Taliban office in Qatar or that he was being considered to head it. "I'm not aware of that," Zaeef said.
A top member of the Afghanistan peace council, ex-Taliban official Arsala Rahmani, said he was also unaware that such an office was about to open. Rahmani said the peace council, a group of about 70 influential Afghans and former Taliban appointed by Karzai to try to reconcile with the insurgents, was busy trying to find a new leader.
The former head of the council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated on Sept. 20. Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan, was killed by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
After Rabbani's death, Karzai said informal peace efforts with unknown insurgents, who claim to want peace and then carry out suicide bombings, would not resume. Instead, he said, the Taliban had to establish an official address. At that time he called on Pakistan, where insurgent leaders are said to be based, to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Karzai's statement, which did not mention Qatar, said that those attending the palace meeting agreed that any Taliban office should be established inside Afghanistan. After the report in the newspaper, the Afghan government recalled its ambassador from Qatar for consultations.
The Qataris have not kept Afghan officials engaged in the effort and did not consult with the Afghan government, the official said. He said the Afghan government had been kept appraised through its American and German partners.
The Afghan government would support the establishment of an official address for the Taliban only as a step to facilitate the peace process, not as any kind of a concession, the official said.