KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan Taliban said Tuesday that they have reached a preliminary deal with the Gulf state of Qatar to open a liaison office there, in what could be a step toward formal, substantive peace talks to end more than a decade of war.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid indicated the liaison office will conduct negotiations with the international community but not with the Afghan government — a condition that President Hamid Karzai has indicated he would reject. Mujahid did not say when it would open.
The reported progress came as three bomb blasts hit Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, killing 13.
For the United States and its allies, the idea of a Taliban political office in the Qatari capital of Doha has become the central element in efforts to draw the insurgents into peace talks.
"Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations," said Mujahid. "In this regard, we have started preliminary talks and we have reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community."
Mujahid's emailed statement also said the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the name of Afghanistan under Taliban rule — has "requested for the exchange of prisoners from Guantanamo."
He was referring to a Taliban demand that the U.S. military release about five Afghan prisoners believed to be affiliated with the Taliban from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Taliban are holding Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Hailey, Idaho, who is the only U.S. soldier held by the insurgents. He was taken prisoner June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan.
From the American perspective, other trust-building measures would involve assurances that the insurgents cut ties with al-Qaida, accept the elected civilian government of Afghanistan and bargain in good faith.
For the U.S., one goal of talks with the Taliban would be to identify cease-fire zones that could be used as a steppingstone toward a full peace agreement that stops most fighting.
The Obama administration wants to use its current extensive military campaign and an acknowledged but incomplete plan for a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan as leverage to draw the Taliban to talks with Karzai's representatives.
The gradual process of handing over areas of the country to Afghan security control would ideally be marshaled toward encouraging peace talks, by identifying areas where a test ceasefire could be tried, a senior administration official told The Associated Press last week.
There was no immediate comment from the Afghan government to the Taliban statement, but Karzai had agreed not to oppose the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar.
However, the Taliban statement appeared to restate the militants' long-held position that they would speak directly to the U.S. government and not to the Karzai administration, which they consider a puppet government.
"There are two essential sides in the current situation in the country that has been ongoing for the past 10 years. One is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the other side is the United States of America and their foreign allies," Mujahid said.
That could torpedo talks before they begin.
Karzai has stressed his country will accept no "foreign intervention" in its plans to seek a negotiated peace with the Taliban. The U.S. has agreed that any peace talks with the Taliban would have to be led by the Afghans.
Wahid Muzhda, a former Taliban foreign ministry official and an analyst on issues related to the group, said any future talks would probably be "between the Americans and Taliban, but the Afghan government or High Peace Council representatives will be in the talks."
He said a 70-member High Peace Council set up by Karzai more than a year ago has made little or no headway, and that the U.S. had gone ahead with behind-the-scenes talks because the Afghan government was unable to on its own.
Such talks with Taliban representatives have been going on for months in Europe and the Persian Gulf region though they are now on an unofficial hiatus at Karzai's request.
Afghan experts said the Taliban's decision to open an office in Qatar could be the result of the U.S.-led coalition's military campaign in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Raids by special operations units have also rounded up hundreds of low and midlevel Taliban commanders.
"This proposal has been on the cards for many months, and it's logical that the Taliban would want to increase their options at some point ahead of 2014," when NATO is due to end its combat role, said Theo Farrell, a professor of war studies at King's College, London.
"The question is why now? It could be a sign that the Taliban are feeling the pressure of the military campaign," he said. "But it could also be the result of an internal power play, with those leaders holding a more accommodating view prevailing over the hard-liners and trying to open avenues of contacts with the government."
The prospect of formal peace talks suffered a serious setback in September when Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and the head of the High Peace Council, was assassinated by an attacker posing as a Taliban peace emissary.
After Rabbani's death, Karzai said peace efforts could take place only if the Taliban established a political office that would be authorized to conduct talks on a peaceful end to the 10-year war.
But Karzai initially balked when the plan for Qatar appeared to have been settled without him, officials said.
Early last month, Kabul recalled its ambassador to Qatar for consultations over reports that the Taliban was planning to open an office there. Karzai backed down last week, saying his government would accept the Qatar office to hold peace talks, although Saudi Arabia or Turkey would be preferable venues.
Despite talk of peace, violence persisted in Afghanistan.
Three bombings in a day killed 13 people in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar city.
First, a suicide bomber driving a motorcycle struck near a police checkpoint, killing four civilians and a police officer, said Kandahar provincial police chief Gen. Abul Razaq.
Hours later, two blasts within a few minutes went off in central Kandahar's Marad Circle, killing five civilians and three police officers, provincial spokesman Faisal Ahmad said.
Ahmad said one explosion killed a child at the intersection, drawing police to investigate. Then, another suicide bomber on a motorcycle detonated near the gathered police, killing three officers and four more civilians.
Southern Afghanistan is a traditional Taliban stronghold, and Kandahar has been wracked by violent attacks as the insurgents seek to chip away at government's grip on the city.
In July, Karzai's powerful half brother was gunned down in his Kandahar home. The city's mayor was assassinated a little more than two weeks later.
Also in the south, NATO said Tuesday that one of its service members was killed by a roadside bomb. A statement said the death occurred on Monday. It gave no further details about the soldier's nationality or where exactly the blast occurred.
A total of 544 NATO troops were killed in Afghanistan in 2011, the 10th year of the war. The figure was considerably lower than for 2010, when more than 700 troops died.
About 840 Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed in 2011.
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report from Kabul, Afghanistan.