The Taliban’s move to open a political office abroad ahead of possible peace talks with the US could mark a significant step on the road towards a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s bloody war, analysts say.
The hardline Islamists announced on Tuesday that they had come to an “initial agreement with relevant sides including Qatar” to set up their first representative office outside Afghanistan.
Analysts said they expected the office to be located in the oil-rich state, and hailed the gesture as a step back from the Taliban’s previous refusal to negotiate until all foreign troops have left Afghan soil.
“I think this is positive news for peace in Afghanistan,” Giran Hiwad, of the Kabul-based think-tank, Afghanistan’s Analyst Network, told AFP Wednesday.
“Until yesterday the Taliban were not even talking about talks. But now they say they are prepared to open an office in Qatar,” Hiwad said. “This is definitely a positive step towards peace.”
If the move materialises it could be a landmark in the search for peace after an 11-year war waged by the Taliban against the government of President Hamid Karzai and its US and NATO allies.
Haroun Mir of Afghanistan’s Centre for Research and Policy Studies said the opening of an office would be “good news for peace” but a setback for Karzai as the Taliban pursued direct talks with Washington.
“This shows that the Taliban are ready for talks, this shows that they are under pressure and now they want to negotiate,” Mir said.
But the Taliban, who were ousted from power by a US-led invasion after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, wanted “to negotiate directly with the US in order to bypass the government in Kabul,” he said.
The Karzai government, which had sought to drive any peace process itself within the country, had been outmanoeuvred by the Taliban, Mir said.
Karzai has agreed that if Washington wants to set up a Taliban address in Qatar to enable peace talks he will not stand in the way, as long as those talks are led by his administration.
However, on the day that the move was announced, two suicide bombings, one of them claimed by the Taliban, killed about 15 people, most of them civilians in the southern city of Kandahar.
The United States said after the Taliban’s statement Tuesday that the insurgents must abandon violence before any real peace process can begin in Afghanistan.
“We welcome any step along the road… of the Afghan-led process towards reconciliation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, while adding that the conditions for that so-called reconciliation “have not changed”.
“We’ve always said that Taliban reconciliation would only come on the condition of breaking from Al-Qaeda, abandoning violence and abiding by the Afghan constitution, and that remains the case.”
Commenting on the Taliban’s move, a senior Pakistani government official said in Islamabad: “Afghanistan is a sovereign country and Pakistan will support any move which can bring peace and stability in Afghanistan”.
“We are very clear that any peace initiative should be Afghan-led and Afghan owned”.
There are still about 130,000 US-led forces fighting the Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan, with coalition combat troops set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control for security to Afghan forces.
But the US and its NATO allies have been pressing for political solutions to secure an end to the war.