Taliban insurgents announced a major policy shift on Tuesday, dropping their insistence on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan as a precondition for possible peace talks.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name that the militia prefers to be identified by, confirmed on Tuesday that it has reached an ‘initial agreement’ to open a ‘political office’ overseas, possibly in the Gulf state of Qatar, for peace dialogue.
“We’re now prepared to have a political office outside (Afghanistan) for negotiations with the Afghans (read: Afghan government). And as part of this we have reached an initial agreement with relevant sides, including Qatar,” said Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid in a Pashto-language statement emailed to The Express Tribune on Tuesday.
It’s the first time the militia, which was ousted from power in 2001, has raised the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the decade-long insurgency in Afghanistan. But Mujahid sought to downplay the shift in their policy vis-à-vis peace talks.
“We’ve been consistently saying that the United States will never achieve its goal of militarily subjugating the Afghans,” he said and added that the ‘Islamic Emirate’ believes in a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Though the statement didn’t say that US officials would also be part of peace talks, it at least confirmed the “United States and its Western allies as a party in the Afghan conflict.” The drawdown of foreign forces is already under way and Western nations plan to pull out all their troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Mujahid insisted that the Afghan nation should be allowed to form an Islamic state of their own choosing – a ‘state that doesn’t harm anyone.’
He also called for the release of their prisoners from an infamous US detention centre. “The Islamic Emirate has also asked for the release of its prisoners from Guantanamo Bay,” he said.
Media reports said earlier that the US is considering the transfer of several high-profile Taliban prisoners into the Afghan government custody.
The Taliban statement rejected some media reports that negotiations with the US had begun, but The Express Tribune has learnt that discussions have been ongoing in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Tayyeb Agha, a close aide to Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, and some senior Taliban leaders are said to be leading these talks which also involve the Haqqani network.
Lutfullah Mashal, the spokesperson for Afghan spy agency, National Directorate of Security, refused to comment on the latest development saying that only the Afghan foreign ministry was authorised to speak on the matter.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Janan Masozai wasn’t available for comment. President Hamid Karzai had earlier welcomed the move to open a ‘Taliban liaison office in Doha’ – though Saudi Arabia and Turkey were his preferred choices. Karzai however warned that no foreign power could get involved in the process without his government’s consent.
Arsala Rahmani, a senior member of Karzai’s High Peace Council welcomed the Taliban’s decision. “It’s a gesture of good faith. It is important for the Taliban to negotiate with the international community, especially with the US and we welcome their decision to set up a political office,” Rahmani said.
In a parallel negotiation with the second major insurgents group, representatives of Gulbudin Hekmatyar, the powerful warlord and head of Hezb-e-Islami, met with President Karzai and US embassy officials in Kabul on Sunday.
Presidential spokesperson Aimal Faizi confirmed to the media that a Hezb delegation, led by its in charge of political affairs Dr Ghairat Baheer, met with Karzai “in a good atmosphere, and the results were good”.
Other members of the delegation were: Qutbuddin Hilal, member of Hezb’s central executive committee, and Mehmood Salah, head of the cultural and information section of the group.
Hezb spokesperson Haroon Zarghoon told The Express Tribune that the delegation travelled to Kabul on the invitation of Afghan and the US officials. Zarghon also said that his group was ready to hold dialogue with Kabul “even though we know that the real authority (for talks) rests with the United States.”
A palace official confirmed that the delegation also met with US officials following the meeting with President Karzai. “They met with Nato commander General Alan Jones and US Ambassador in Kabul Ryan C Crocker,” the official said, requesting his name not be mentioned in the report. Zarghoon, however, neither confirmed nor denied the meeting with US officials.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2012.