The “preliminary deal” followed talks with Qatari officials and other “relevant parties,” Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement in the region’s Pashtu language. The Taliban had demanded the release of prisoners held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the statement said, without giving any further details.
“This is a major breakthrough in the Afghan reconciliation process,” Rustam Shah, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the neighboring country, said in a phone interview. “It shows that the Taliban’s role as a political force has been accepted” as efforts to “install a national unity government in Afghanistan before the American withdrawal” are stepped up.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai in November gathered tribal elders and the country’s leaders in part to consider how to advance talks with the Taliban following the September assassination of peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani.
With the U.S. planning to withdraw most of its 98,000 combat soldiers from Afghanistan by 2014, Karzai sought a mandate to pursue talks with the Taliban while brokering a longer-term security arrangement with the Obama administration that includes commitments to maintain a troop presence and train Afghan forces.
Karzai last month dropped opposition to the setting up of a Taliban office in Qatar, where Afghan and Western peace negotiators could contact the militants’ intermediaries.
“If America wants the Taliban office to be opened in Qatar then we are agreed however we preferred Saudi Arabia or Turkey,” Karzai said in remarks to Kuwaiti news media, according to a statement from his press office released Dec. 27. “The government of Afghanistan is seriously ready to pursue the peace process and wants a Taliban address to be opened,” the statement quoted Karzai as saying.
Karzai didn’t mention previous demands of his government that the Taliban stop fighting before being allowed to open the office, the New York Times reported Dec. 29.
Rabbani’s death at the hands of a suicide bomber, who posed for months as a Taliban emissary, prompted Karzai to say efforts to talk with the Taliban to end a decade of fighting were pointless. He said he should focus instead on peace negotiations with Pakistan, since the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani militant network are based on the Pakistani side of the porous border.
In its report late last month, the New York Times said the opening of an office in Qatar would have the benefit of reducing Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban.
Former Pakistan envoy Shah said the announcement of an agreement on the Qatar office was unlikely to reduce violence in the short term. “The Taliban will still prefer covert negotiations so that their fighters don’t feel they are being betrayed,” Shah said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at firstname.lastname@example.org