KABUL — The government of Afghanistan on Wednesday gave its blessing to talks between Taliban insurgents and the United States, and also to the opening of an office for the Islamists in Qatar.
The hardline Taliban announced on Tuesday that they had come to an "initial agreement with relevant sides including Qatar" to set up their first representative office outside Afghanistan.
The move is seen as a precursor to talks to end the bloody war between the Taliban and the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
"Afghanistan, to save the country from war, conspiracies, the killing of innocent people and to reach peace, agrees with the negotiations between US and Taliban that will end up in creating an office for Taliban in Qatar," the government said in a statement.
Kabul "considers negotiations the only way to reach peace and end the war and violence that have been imposed on our people", the statement said.
It added that the acceptance of the Taliban-US negotiations aimed to "save our country and people from foreigners' pretexts and servants who are used to continue war in Afghanistan".
A government source who did not want to be named said this was a reference to Pakistan, which Karzai has in the past accused of undermining all negotiations with the Taliban.
In Pakistan, a senior government official said in response to the Taliban statement: "Afghanistan is a sovereign country and Pakistan will support any move which can bring peace and stability in Afghanistan.
"We are very clear that any peace initiative should be Afghan-led and Afghan owned".
The Taliban have said that one of their main demands for negotiated peace would be for a prisoner exchange to include the release of their inmates from the US-run detention facility Guantanamo Bay.
However US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that "no decisions" have been made in that regard.
But overall analysts hailed the move to open an office abroad as a step back from the Taliban's previous refusal to negotiate until all foreign troops have left Afghan soil.
"I think this is positive news for peace in Afghanistan," Giran Hiwad, of the Kabul-based think-tank, Afghanistan Analysts Network, told AFP.
"Until yesterday the Taliban were not even talking about talks. But now they say they are prepared to open an office in Qatar."
Haroun Mir of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies said the opening of an office would be "good news for peace" but a setback for Karzai as the Taliban pursued direct talks with Washington.
"This shows that the Taliban are ready for talks, this shows that they are under pressure and now they want to negotiate," Mir said.
But the Taliban, who were ousted from power by a US-led invasion after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, wanted "to negotiate directly with the US in order to bypass the government in Kabul," he said.
"And finally they were able to convince the US and certainly it's a big achievement for the Taliban and a setback for the government in Kabul."
The Karzai government, which had sought to drive any peace process itself within the country, had been outmanoeuvred by the Taliban, Mir said.
Karzai has said previously that if Washington wants to set up a Taliban address in Qatar to enable peace talks he will not stand in the way, as long as those talks are led by his administration.
A senior member of the government-appointed High Peace Council, Esmael Qasimyar, told AFP: "We welcome and agree that Taliban should have an address, but we still prefer the address to be inside Afghanistan.
"We are optimistic and welcome the move, but the talks should be transparent, their office in Qatar should have a legal basis, it should only be for talks between Afghans."
The United States said in reaction to the Taliban statement that the insurgents must abandon violence before any real peace process can begin in Afghanistan.
"We welcome any step along the road... of the Afghan-led process towards reconciliation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, while adding that the conditions for that reconciliation "have not changed".
"We've 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."
But in a sign that the killing is unlikely to stop soon despite talk about talks, two suicide bombings killed some 15 people in the southern city of Kandahar on the day the Taliban statement was issued.
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.
But the US and its NATO allies have been pressing for political solutions to secure an end to the war.
The death toll of coalition service personnel in 2011 was 566 and includes at least 417 from the US and 45 from Britain, according to an AFP tally based on figures from independent website icasualties.org.
The number is down from a wartime high of 711 in 2010 but up from 521 in 2009.
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