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Former Taliban militants walk to hand over their weapons during a joining ceremony with the Afghan government in Herat, Afghanistan Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011. (Hoshang Hashimi/AP/Hoshang Hashimi/AP)
Former Taliban militants walk to hand over their weapons during a joining ceremony with the Afghan government in Herat, Afghanistan Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011. (Hoshang Hashimi/AP/Hoshang Hashimi/AP)

THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

Taliban pledge to open Qatar peace office Add to ...

It has neither a street address nor an opening date, but the Taliban’s promise to create a political office in Qatar represents a rare and concrete cause for hope in ending the decade-long war in Afghanistan.

Tuesday’s pledge by the Afghan Taliban to open the office to facilitate negotiations is a victory in itself for peace efforts. It’s the first time the insurgent group has publically signalled its willingness to seek a nonviolent solution to the war outside of the backrooms where negotiations have so far taken place.

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For the West, it also marks a turnaround. It is only relatively recently that Washington embraced the previously unthinkable idea that reconciling with the Taliban, rather than defeating them in battle, represents the most effective way to end the war. The Taliban office is a beacon for that policy shift.

And for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the acceptance of a political liaison office in Qatar signifies a stunning climbdown. Not long ago, he insisted such an office be in Kabul, arguing peace could only be brokered between the Afghan government and the Taliban away from outside interference.

This was always a non-starter for the insurgents, who view his government as a puppet regime unworthy of their time.

Last week, however, Mr. Karzai gave his reluctant blessing to the Qatar site, implicitly acknowledging peace negotiations need to be more inclusive in order to succeed.

With the three sides of this conflict’s political triangle – the Taliban, the West and the Afghan government – inching closer, Qatar may well provide the push needed to forward peace efforts that have been mired for years by false starts.

“We are right now ready …to have a political office overseas, in order to have an understanding with the international community,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an e-mailed statement.

Three suicide bombings Tuesday in the southern city of Kandahar that claimed the lives of 13 people, including a child, underscored the violence that persists in Afghanistan.

There are at least three broad reasons to believe that the Taliban’s Qatar office will make a difference.

First, it offers Western and Afghan diplomats a direct means of communications with the right people: Taliban leaders that actually have the authority to negotiate. Previous efforts to broker peace have been undermined by a lack of transparency that has allowed Taliban imposters – or simply those without sway – to make promises they were ultimately unable to keep.

In one particularly embarrassing case, American and Afghan officials conducted months worth of high-level discussions, assisted by NATO, with someone they believed to be Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the Taliban’s most senior commanders, who boasted direct contact with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the movement’s spiritual leader.

As it turned out, the man claiming to be the mullah was an imposter, and made off with bags of money given as a gesture of good faith. The episode, which took place last year, revealed the limits of Western intelligence but also the perils of negotiating in secret with an elusive opponent.

The second reason for optimism is that by positioning its office in Qatar, the Afghan Taliban has distanced itself from Pakistan, which has, through its secret security services, interfered with peace talks in the past to protect its own interests.

Qatar has ambitions of its own. It seeks to be a diplomatic star and punch above its weight on the international stage. Those aspirations, however, are far less problematic than those of Pakistan, which still serves as a safe haven for insurgents. Afghan and American officials have long warned that the country manipulates the peace process to assert its power in Afghanistan. Last month, it boycotted the second Bonn conference to discuss Afghanistan’s future.

In the past, Pakistan’s military has said it was in contact with Mullah Omar, offering to bring him and other commanders to the negotiating table. With Qatar now hosting the Taliban office, apparently at Washington’s request, that offer is irrelevant. Peace talks now have a chance at success without Pakistani interference.

The third reason for optimism is the tiny Gulf country’s ability to serve a crucial role in confidence-building measures such as prisoner exchanges.

The Taliban have demanded that the U.S. military release a handful of prisoners believed to be affiliated with the Taliban from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The Taliban, meanwhile, are holding Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant, who was taken prisoner in 2009 in Afghanistan. It is unclear whether any prisoner exchange will take place, but if it does, it could happen in Qatar, which has the clout and capacity to handle the logistics of such a swap.

The Kandahar suicide bombings on Tuesday underscored the violence that persists in Afghanistan. Soon, in Qatar, there may be reason to believe it might finally end.

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