Karzai to hold talks on Taliban office in Qatar

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai was set to hold discussions in Qatar Sunday on the possible opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state that could facilitate peace talks to end more than a decade of war.

Karzai was previously opposed to the Islamist extremists having a meeting venue in Qatar as he feared that his government would be frozen out of any negotiations.

The militants refuse to have direct contact with the Afghan president, saying he is a puppet of the United States, which supported his rise to power after the military operation to oust the Taliban in 2001.

But with NATO-led combat troops due to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Karzai agreed to the proposed Taliban office in the Qatari capital Doha and is expected to raise the plan in talks with the emir of Qatar on Sunday.

Any future peace talks still face numerous hurdles before they begin, including confusion over who would represent the Taliban and Karzai’s insistence that his appointees are at the center of negotiations.

“We will discuss the peace process, of course, and the opening of an office for the Taliban in Qatar,” presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi told AFP before Karzai left Kabul on Saturday.

“If we want to have talks to bring peace to Afghanistan, the main side must be the Afghan government’s representatives -- the High Peace Council, which has members from all the country’s ethnic and political backgrounds,” Faizi added.

A statement from Karzai’s office said he was accompanied on the two-day state visit by foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul and Salahuddin Rabbani, chairman of the High Peace Council.

Negotiating with the hardline Taliban regime that had harbored Al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks was for many years anathema to countries fighting in the UN-backed coalition against the militants.

But the search for a political settlement became a priority as the insurgency raged on with Taliban leaders able to fuel violence from safe havens across the border in Pakistan.

The Qatar office could mean little if the Taliban continue to refuse to negotiate with Karzai or the government-appointed High Peace Council.

“The opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is not related to Karzai, it is a matter between the Taliban and the Qatar government,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.

“Our representatives who are already in Qatar won’t see or talk to him.”

The Islamist militants broke off tentative contacts with the US in Qatar a year ago after the failure of attempts to agree on a prisoner exchange as a confidence-building measure.

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