Taliban Plans To Set Up Political Office In Qatar

The Taliban announces it will soon open a political office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The move could set the stage for negotiations on an end to the Afghan war. But the State Department reiterated that the process will only succeed if the Taliban renounces violence, severs ties with al-Qaida and abides by the Afghan constitution.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. The Afghan Taliban says it has reached a preliminary deal to open a political office to conduct negotiations with the international community. The office would be in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The move could help the long tangled peace process for Afghanistan, but as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, there are pitfalls along the way.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There have been ongoing efforts for years to find some way to initiate peace talks for Afghanistan with no success so far. Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the Taliban's decision to open a liaison office in Qatar is significant.

BRIAN KATULIS: It's a very small step, but I think it's an important sign - probably one of the first signs we've seen in a long while - from elements of the Taliban that they want to sit down and talk.

NORTHAM: Katulis says the decision may indicate the Taliban is feeling pressure from an increased military push by the U.S. and its allies, but he stresses that the decision is just the beginning of what will likely be a very long and challenging process. Katulis notes that the Taliban is not a monolithic organization. There are many factions and not always aligned. The members who will be opening the office in Doha represent Mullah Omar, the group's reclusive leader. But Katulis says it's not clear how much authority they will have to negotiate.

KATULIS: I think that's the key question we need to be asking is how much do these individuals that will be in this office truly represent the broader Taliban movement? And I think that's an open question.

NORTHAM: Anand Gopal, a researcher and author of an upcoming book on the war in Afghanistan, says another problem could be Pakistan, where most of the Taliban leadership resides. Gopal says Pakistan could prove to be a major spoiler, as it has in the past.

ANAND GOPAL: There has been instances in which Taliban members have tried to reach out to the U.S. or to the Afghan government and they've been arrested by Pakistan. So, really, I think nothing can happen without Pakistan's acquiescence in any of this.

NORTHAM: As the plan for the opening of the Doha office was announced today, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the group is also seeking the release of some of its members held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland would not be drawn out on the Guantanamo detainee issue, but she reiterated the U.S. policy on peace talks with the Taliban.

VICTORIA NULAND: If this is part of an Afghan led, Afghan supported process and the Afghan government itself believes it can play a constructive role and it is also supported by the host country, then we will play a role in that, as well.

NORTHAM: Afghan president Hamid Karzai initially rejected a Taliban office in Qatar. He said the office should be in Saudi Arabia or Turkey, both of which have good relations with the Afghan leader, but he has since agreed to the plan.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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