In what could be one of the most significant steps toward a peace deal with the Taliban yet, the insurgent group announced on Tuesday that it had reached a preliminary agreement with the Qatari government to open a political office there.
As the Monitor reported last week, Western and Afghan officials agreed to support such an office in Qatar. Talks have been a primary focus for the past year, but a physical address for the Taliban would mean an unprecedented, clear channel of communication that could facilitate substantive negotiations.
“We are now ready to have an office abroad for the talks with the internationals,” wrote the Taliban in an official statement released on Tuesday. “The stance of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [the Taliban] from the beginning has been that there should be an end to this occupation and Afghans should be left to make an Islamic government in the country which should not be harmful for anyone.”
The Taliban also requested the release of several of its members currently detained at Guantanamo Bay and denied media reports indicating an imminent breakthrough on negotiations.
With much of the Taliban’s leadership believed to be in Pakistan, NATO and Afghan officials had hoped Afghanistan’s neighbor would assist with peace negotiations. But such hopes have been increasingly dashed by a deterioration of US-Pakistani relations, which culminated last month in Pakistan’s boycott of the much anticipated Bonn Conference.
Without the support of Pakistan, it was virtually impossible to access the Taliban's senior leadership. Thomas Ruttig, a senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network writes:
“The problem with talking to the Taleban is not so much an issue of an unknown address but of access to them which is controlled, restricted and instrumentalised by Pakistan. It is a matter of political will, on Pakistan’s part, whether it allows talks to happen – or whether it tries to block talks. The address has been there, but someone has simply been standing in front of the doorbell.”
Though talks appear to be getting under way now that the Taliban have laid the groundwork for an office in a neutral location, violence in Afghanistan is unlikely to abate. In the interest of negotiating from a position of strength, both NATO and Taliban commanders will want to show battlefield gains and military strength.
One indication that fighting may actually increase comes in the form of new reports that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have forged an alliance that will bring members of the Pakistani group into Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces. Previously, the Pakistani Taliban avoided sending fighters to Afghanistan in the interest of fighting to topple its own government, reports McClatchy.
The alliance could indicate that the Afghan Taliban is weak after suffering considerable losses this past year or that it is seeking to inflict the maximum amount of damage possible on NATO to improve its position at the table.
“For God’s sake, forget all your differences and give us fighters to boost the battle against America in Afghanistan,” senior Al Qaeda commander Abu Yahya al-Libi told Pakistani fighters during a meeting to discuss the alliance, a militant who attended the meetings, according to the Associated Press.