KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban must renounce ties to terrorists and endorse peace efforts as a condition for opening a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar, a senior U.S. diplomat said Sunday.
Marc Grossman, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, called for quick work in setting up the office in Qatar, seen as a step to negotiating an end to the decade-long war in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Western-backed government.
The issue underscores the complexity of efforts to wind down the war ahead of the scheduled departure of NATO combat forces by the end of 2014. Publicly, the Taliban have expressed no interest in reconciliation, and while the U.S. says repeatedly that the peace process must be led by Afghans, Kabul continues to fear it is being left out of the negotiating process.
Grossman spoke to reporters Sunday in Kabul alongside Afghanistan's Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin.
Grossman said Qatar and Afghanistan need to be in direct contact about the office, but "for an office to open, we also need to have a clear statement by the Afghan Taliban against international terrorism and in support of a peace process to end the armed conflict in Afghanistan."
Grossman, speaking at the Afghan Foreign Ministry on a snowy evening in Kabul, noted that the Afghan government would welcome a delegation from Qatar to discuss setting up the office.
Reassuring Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who fears he is being sidelined by U.S. efforts to find a political resolution to the war, Grossman said, "Only Afghans can decide the future of Afghanistan."
Before making his first visit to Afghanistan, Grossman made stops in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and India. He wanted to stop in Pakistan as well, but he said Pakistani officials did not want to meet with him now because they were still revising their policy toward the U.S.
The relationship is badly strained over the U.S. unilateral raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and a U.S. airstrike late last year that killed 24 Pakistan soldiers. Pakistan, where many Afghan insurgent leaders are said to be based, has closed overland routes into Afghanistan for U.S. and NATO war supplies.
Both Grossman and Ludin said Pakistan has a crucial role to play in efforts to craft a peace deal with the Taliban.
"There really can't be a comprehensive settlement here — a peace process — unless Pakistan is part of it," Grossman said.
Last year Washington opened secret negotiations with the Taliban exploring their willingness to enter into peace talks ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Talks with the Taliban briefly faltered last summer after Karzai learned of the clandestine negotiations and made them public, temporarily scuttling them. Privately, Karzai has expressed fears that the United States will broker a deal with the Taliban that will be imposed on his government.
U.S. conversations with Taliban representatives have focused on establishing the Taliban office in Qatar and prisoner exchanges. The Taliban are seeking the release of five prisoners from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former governor of Herat province, and Mullah Mohammed Fasl, a top Taliban commander.
Ludin expressed the Afghan government's support in getting a Taliban political office opened in Qatar and said it also would back an American decision to transfer some Taliban detainees from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
"If the United States decides to transfer these detainees to Qatar, to the extent that that means that these people will be reunited with their families, the Afghan government will support it. ... but you also will have to ascertain the desire of the detainees themselves," Ludin said.
Grossman said no decision has been made about the transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
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