The Taliban announced on Tuesday that it had come to an “initial agreement” to set up an overseas political office, possibly in Qatar, in their first public gesture toward peace talks with the US.
A statement on the group’s purported Web site “Voice of Jihad,” said “preliminary talks had been held with relevant sides including Qatar” to open an office outside Afghanistan, without confirming where it would be.
It is the first time the insurgent group has publicly raised the prospect of a negotiated peace after more than 10 years of fighting, always previously insisting they would not talk until all foreign troops had left Afghan soil.
One of their demands would be for a prisoner exchange to include the release of Taliban inmates from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, they said.
However, the reported progress came as three explosions rocked the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Tuesday, killing at least 12 and injuring 28, according to a police commander.
In the early evening, a suicide bomber detonated a tricycle in downtown Kandahar, killing four civilians and three policeman and injuring over a dozen, provincial police chief General Abdul Raziq said.
Earlier in the day, another suicide bomber set off an explosive-laden motorbike in the city center, killing four children and one policeman, Raziq said. Sixteen others, including policemen and civilians, were injured.
The US said on Tuesday that the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the first explosion, must abandon violence before any real peace process can begin in Afghanistan.
“We welcome any step along the road ... of the Afghan-led process toward reconciliation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, while adding that the conditions for that so-called reconciliation “have not changed.”
“We have always said that Taliban reconciliation would only come on the condition of breaking from al-Qaeda, abandoning violence and abiding by the Afghan Constitution, and that remains the case.”
There are still about 130,000 US-led forces fighting the Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan, with coalition combat troops set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control for security to Afghan forces.
However, the US and its NATO allies have been pressing for political solutions to secure an end to the war.
The statement rejected media reports that negotiations with the US had begun, but according to a source in Pakistan, early discussions were held last autumn in Doha, Qatar, between US diplomats and a small Taliban delegation led by Tayyeb Agha, the former secretary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
The source said Agha was the only Taliban official in direct contact with Mullah Omar, saying that the Taliban’s founder was based in Pakistan.
The comments came two days after Karzai publicly welcomed remarks by US Vice President Joe Biden that the Taliban “per se is not our enemy,” saying they would help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Biden’s comments to Newsweek magazine triggered controversy in the US, but reflected an increasing focus on finding a political settlement as Western nations look to bring their troops home.
Karzai said that if the US wants to set up a Taliban address in Qatar to enable peace talks he will not stand in the way, as long as Afghanistan is involved in the process.