REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- In its most public indication to date of a willingness to enter peace negotiations, the Taliban movement announced Tuesday that it planned to open a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
The apparent deal to inaugurate a Taliban mission is largely the product of months of effort by the U.S. government. Senior American officials have repeatedly asserted over the last year that a political settlement with the insurgents is the only way to achieve a durable peace after a decade of war.
Although U.S. officials sought to characterize any future peace process as Afghan-led, President Hamid Karzai may prove a balky partner. He had expressed strong qualms about a Taliban mission in Qatar, urging instead that it be located in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
Last month, Karzai’s government recalled its ambassador to Qatar in a sign of displeasure over not being sufficiently informed about contacts between the Americans, the Qataris and the Taliban.
[Updated 9:10 a.m. Jan. 3: Even with peace hopes raised by the Taliban gesture, violence continued apace. In the southern city of Kandahar, a suicide bomber on a motorbike set off a powerful blast in a crowded market district early Tuesday afternoon. The provincial government said in a statement that four children and a police officer were killed and 16 people were injured, six of them children.
Hours later, a second suicide blast in the city killed eight people, including three policemen, said Zalmay Ayubi, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor.]
Efforts to open channels with the insurgents on Afghan soil, however, have largely met with failure, most spectacularly in September, when the Afghan government’s chief negotiator, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace envoy. After that setback, Karzai said no contacts could occur without an “address” for making contacts with the Taliban or their intermediaries.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement emailed to news organizations that the aim of opening the Qatar office was to promote “understanding” with the international community. He denied that any negotiations were taking place as yet, or that the group had agreed to enter into talks.
Mujahid also made no reference to the Afghan government, which the Taliban routinely derides as a “puppet” administration, being a party to any future political contacts.
He reiterated a demand for the release of Taliban fighters being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some observers have suggested the group may seek a prisoner swap as a confidence-building measure; one U.S. soldier, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, has been held by the Taliban since 2009.
The Taliban statement did not give any date for the opening of the office, but some figures associated with the movement have settled in Doha, the Qatar capital, in recent weeks.
[Updated 2:22 p.m. PST Jan. 3 The Obama administration portrayed the decision to open the office as preliminary, but officials said they would support the move if it was endorsed by the Afghan government.
“We’re not aware of any formal decision,” said Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokesman. “But we are prepared to support a process that the Afghans support.”
Administration officials have been trying to avoid the impression that they are driving the peace negotiations. They have long taken the position that they will support an Afghan-led negotiation provided the Taliban is willing to renounce violence, break ties with Al Qaeda and support all elements of the Afghan constitution.]
The quest for a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict has become more urgent, with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force aiming to end its combat role in 2014. A U.S. troop drawdown is already underway and is set to accelerate this year.
But many obstacles remain. Women’s groups and other activists are worried that the Karzai government will concede too much to militant groups in the course of any negotiations. And U.S. relations with Pakistan, whose cooperation is considered crucial to any accord, hit a new low late last year after errant U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Pakistani-Afghan border.
In its statement, the Taliban movement offered no hint that it would seek a cessation of hostilities any time soon, vowing to maintain a “strong presence” in Afghanistan.
“The U.S. with its allies that are trying to subdue Afghans with force will never reach their goal,” the statement said.
-- Laura King. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.
Photo: Victims of a suicide attack are seen on beds at the hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Tuesday. Credit: Allauddin Khan / Associated Press