KABUL Afghanistan will accept a Taliban liaison office in Qatar to start peace talks but no foreign power can get involved in the process without its consent, the government's peace council said, as efforts gather pace to find a solution to the decade-long war.
Afghanistan's High Peace Council, in a note to foreign missions, has set out ground rules for engaging the Taliban after Kabul grew concerned that the United States and Qatar, helped by Germany, had secretly agreed with the Taliban to open an office in the Qatari capital, Doha.
U.S. officials have held about half a dozen meetings with their insurgent contacts, mostly in Germany and Doha with representatives of Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban's Quetta Shura, this year to prepare the way for face-to-face talks between the group and the Afghan government.
A representative office for the group is considered the starting point for such talks and Doha has in the past served as a meeting ground for initial contacts.
But the Afghan peace commission which has suffered a series of setbacks including the assassination of its head in September said that negotiations with the Taliban could only begin after they stopped violence against civilians, cut ties to al Qaeda, and accepted the Afghan constitution which guarantees civil rights and liberties, including rights for women.
The council, according to a copy of the 11-point note made available to Reuters, also said any peace process with the Taliban would have to have the support of Pakistan since members of the insurgent group were based there.
"The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is in agreement regarding the opening of an office for the armed opposition, but only to move forward the peace process and conduct negotiations," the council said.
The government would prefer such an office in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey, both of which it is close to, but was not averse to Doha as long as the authority of the Afghan state was not eroded and the office was only established for talks, officials said.
"We are saying Saudi or Turkey are preferable, we are not saying it has to be there only. The only condition is it should be in an Islamic country," said a government official.
President Hamid Karzai's administration recalled its ambassador from Doha last week, apparently angry that it had been kept in the dark about the latest round of contacts with the insurgent group.
Officials said Kabul was also deeply concerned about reports that the United States was considering the transfer of a small number of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay military prison to Doha as a prelude to the talks.
"We are a sovereign country, we have laws. How can you transfer our prisoners from one country to another. Already it's a violation to have them in Guantanamo Bay," the official said.
The Afghan government wanted the prisoners to be returned to its custody, the official said.
Reuters reported this month that the United States was considering the transfer of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay into Afghan government custody as part of accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy.
"We have no problem with this. In fact we have been demanding this for a while. These are Afghan prisoners," said the official, who declined to be identified.
The tension between the Karzai administration and the United States over engaging the Taliban underscores the challenges of seeking a political settlement as the West prepares to withdraw most combat troops from the country by 2014.
Efforts to engage the insurgent group have faced a string of setbacks, the most recent being the assassination of the head of the peace council and former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September at the hands of a suicide bomber who pretended to be a Taliban emissary.
HARDENING OF POSITIONS
It led to a hardening of positions with Karzai saying the government could not talk to suicide bombers and that there should be an address for the Taliban so that negotiators know they are talking to the right representatives.
"We are committed to the reconciliation process, the experience of the last 10 years shows no military solution is possible. Talking to the armed opposition is the key in this regard," said presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the United States backed steps toward reconciliation that bring Afghans together and allow insurgents eschewing violence and abiding by the Afghan constitution to come off the battlefield.
"We will join initiatives that support Afghan-led reconciliation. Pakistan also has an important role to play in supporting the Afghan-led process," she said.
A State Department official added Washington will continue to work very closely with Kabul authorities to draw in Taliban fighters who break from al Qaeda terrorists and agree to respect the rights of Afghans, including women and ethnic minorities.
"We believe it is in the interests of both of our countries, as well as the region as whole, to work together to support a stable, secure, and prosperous Afghanistan inside a stable, secure, and prosperous region," the State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Afghan peace council, laying down the markers for engagement with the Taliban, said well known figures from both the Taliban and the government had to be involved in talks.
It said that "before any negotiations can take place, violence against Afghan people must stop and that the armed opposition must cut ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups".
It also said that the Taliban must accept the constitution and honor the gains made in the last 10 years since they were ousted from power, conditions that the Taliban have shown no sign of accepting.
The Taliban do not accept the constitution and have vowed to carry on fighting until all foreign troops have left the country.
The peace council said Pakistani support was necessary for talks to take place, another condition that makes the task harder because of fraught ties between the United States and Pakistan which fears it is being shut out of the process.
Opening a Taliban office in a third country is seen as a way to create distance from Pakistan which has longstanding ties to the insurgent group.
But the government official said he did not think the peace council had laid down such tough conditions that the talks would fail even before they started.
"We don't think it's a deal breaker. We are quite optimistic," he said.
(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Honolulu and Alister Bull and Jim Wolf in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel, Ed Lane and Sandra Maler)