Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents warned Thursday that their support for peace talks did not mean they had surrendered in the 10-year war against US-led coalition forces.
The comment came as the United States announced that it would send a senior official to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai next week to see whether he agrees to a resumption of preliminary talks with the Taliban.
A US official said the talks could open within weeks if Karzai was agreeable.
The Taliban, who have announced their readiness to open a political office in Qatar, said they had increased their “political efforts to come to mutual understanding with the world” to bring about peace in Afghanistan.
“But this understanding does not mean a surrender from jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration,” the hardline Islamists said in a statement received by AFP.
“But rather the Islamic Emirate is utilising its political wing alongside its military presence and jihad in order to realise the national and Islamic aspirations of the nation and its martyrs.”
The statement could be seen as a reassurance to rank and file Taliban members that the leadership is not selling out the jihad as it enters negotiations.
The remark about the constitution is a direct response to a key US demand for any progress in negotiations — that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution, which mandates protection for the rights of women and minorities.
Another crucial element would be a renunciation of violence by the Taliban and a break with Al-Qaeda and other “terrorist” groups, the US says.
Clinton said Wednesday that US special regional envoy Marc Grossman would visit Kabul next week and several other key regional capitals to discuss the peace process.
Washington has consistently said that any talks with the Taliban to end the decade-long war could only take place with the agreement of the Afghan government, which eventually should lead the process.
“I have made it clear to President Karzai that we will work with him, under his leadership,” Clinton said.
After meeting Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani in Washington on Wednesday, she said “positive statements” from Karzai and the Taliban signaled support for discussions on opening a political office in Qatar.
The top US diplomat cautioned however that nothing had been decided on the idea of a Qatar office for the Taliban and that Washington and its allies were still in the preliminary stages of testing whether the approach could be successful.
The United States reportedly had a tentative deal with the Taliban to open talks last year, which would have seen five detainees freed from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay and sent to Qatar in return for a renunciation of links to international terrorism.
But the agreement folded amid suggestions that Karzai was opposed to it.
“We have not made any decisions about releasing any Taliban from Guantanamo,” Clinton said.
Sheikh Hamad said that Qatar was interested in “any opportunity” to take any steps that would defuse tensions in South Asia.
Many observers in the United States and elsewhere remain skeptical about the prospects for a meaningful dialogue with the Taliban, noting Western leverage may ebb as NATO nations and allies draw down their troops in the next two years.
About 130,000 US-led troops are still in the country but combat soldiers are set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control for security to Afghan forces.