KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed off Wedneday on the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar so that the militant group can hold talks with the United States.
Karzai expressed hope in a statement that peace talks between the dueling sides would “eliminate the foreigner’s excuses” to use Afghanistan as battlefield against terrorist groups.
“Dialogue is the only way to achieve peace and get rid of war and the violence imposed upon suffering Afghan people,” the statement said.
Karzai’s approval of an office for the militant group in Doha was seen as vital to the prospects of the peace talks, for which the Obama administration has expressed high hopes. In the past, the Afghan president has felt slighted during U.S.-led attempts to hold exploratory talks with Taliban envoys.
The Taliban on Tuesday for the first time publicly expressed interest in negotiating with Washington, outlining a vision for talks with U.S. officials in Qatar that conspicuously excluded a role for the Afghan government.
The announcement marked a major departure for a militant group that had long said it would not negotiate while foreign troops remained in Afghanistan. It offered a measure of hope that after years of missteps, a U.S.-sought negotiated settlement to the decade-long war is possible. If a Taliban office is established in Qatar, U.S. and Afghan interlocutors would have a formal venue to hold substantive talks with the group’s envoys after months of clandestine contact.
But analysts warned of substantial unknowns and possible pitfalls, including whether Pakistan will back or seek to thwart the effort. In addition, it was feared that the statement’s omission of a role for the Afghan government would anger Karzai, a fear that was at least in part allayed by Wednesday’s presidential statement.
One Taliban motivation for negotiating with Washington involves brokering the release of Taliban leaders detained in the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. An Afghan official suggested Tuesday that the Taliban might use a captured U.S. soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, as a bargaining chip.
Analysts say Taliban leaders have also expressed hope that the United States could bring them out of diplomatic isolation by lobbying to have the group’s leaders removed from international terrorist sanctions lists.
The Obama administration has long sought a political breakthrough in a costly war that has lasted more than a decade and is increasingly unpopular. But U.S. officials acknowledge that any peace deal with the Taliban — which would probably allow the group back into Kabul through some sort of power-sharing arrangement — would be fraught with challenges and moral dilemmas.
An Afghan role?
The Taliban statement’s omission of Karzai and his government puts the Obama administration in a difficult position. Even as they have held a half-dozen meetings with insurgent representatives outside Afghanistan over the past year, U.S. officials have continued to insist that “formal” talks would have to be led by the Afghans.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland sidestepped questions about the U.S. role in any forthcoming talks in Qatar. “If this is part of an Afghan-led, Afghan-supported process, and the Afghan government itself believes it can play a constructive role . . . then we will play a role in that, as well,” she said.
Karzai’s spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday. When Karzai asked the Taliban to lay down its arms and return to the political fold in the summer of 2010, he referred to insurgent leaders as wayward “brothers” who would be welcomed back.
But when his top peace broker, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated in a suicide bombing in the fall, Karzai rescinded his offer to talk. He said instead that he would henceforth talk only to Pakistani officials, because the Taliban’s leaders have long operated out of havens across the border. At times, aides say, he has felt blindsided by clandestine talks that U.S. officials have held with the Taliban.
The Taliban statement said there were “two main parties involved” in Afghanistan over the past decade: the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the insurgents’ name for the country — and “the United States of America and its foreign allies.”
The statement also said that the group’s vision for the Qatar office was to promote its own political views and “to spread understanding with the international community.” U.S. officials have said the Taliban representatives were told that the office could not be used for recruitment or political activities.
Some Afghan officials expressed concern Tuesday about the prospect of negotiations.