By Usman Sharifi (AFP) – Jan 28, 2012
KABUL — The latest round of diplomacy has cleared a path for the Afghan peace process but final hurdles remain before genuine talks to end the war can formally begin, officials and analysts say.
These include the US release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and a statement by the hardline Islamists that they are prepared to negotiate with what they call the "puppet" Afghan government as well as with Washington.
The drive for peace took an unprecedented turn early this month when the Taliban, led by the reclusive US arch-enemy Mullah Omar, announced plans to open an office in Qatar as a prelude to talks with Washington.
The United States, which had been driving the process behind the scenes, signed on with public caveats and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai said -- in a lukewarm statement -- that it agreed with the plan.
But it soon became clear that Karzai feared being sidelined by the talks and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton despatched special envoy Marc Grossman to Kabul and other regional centres to soothe doubts and whip up support.
His trip appears to have met with success in a country weary of war since the Taliban regime was ousted by a US-led invasion in the wake of the September 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
"There were some differences between the Afghan government, the Taliban, Qataris and US officials over the Taliban office in Doha, but there has now been agreement over the issue," a member of Karzai's High Peace Council said.
"Thus there is a good possibility that the Taliban office and formal talks could officially start soon," he said, requesting anonymity before agreeing to speak on the sensitive issue.
Veteran Afghanistan watcher and author Ahmed Rashid agreed that Grossman's trip had dealt with some problems but was more cautious over a timeline for the start of talks.
"I think we are on track. During the American visit to Kabul there were a lot of contradictions ironed out."
Rashid said the key outstanding issue remained the Taliban's demand for the release of its prisoners from the US's "war on terror" jail at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Washington has to submit plans for any release to Congress 30 days in advance and that had not yet happened, he said, adding that it remained to be seen whether the Taliban were willing to talk ahead of a release.
In addition, the Taliban needed to make a statement accepting the need to talk to the Afghan government, as well as the United States, and Qatar had to give details on the status of the insurgents' office.
"A number of things remain to be done, but I see them happening," he said.
Both Rashid and the peace council member cautioned that reports of Taliban delegates in Qatar did not mean an early start to peace talks, saying they had been in Qatar frequently in recent months.
"The truth is that most of the members of the Taliban peace delegation like Tayeb Agha, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai and Shahabudin Delawar have already been in Qatar for three or four months," the peace council member said.
"We know about their presence, it is not like the Taliban delegation arrived there yesterday or today."
The Afghan government is expecting a delegation from the Qatar government to visit Kabul to explain its role in the talks, said High Peace Council secretary Aminundin Muzaffari.
"The message of US special envoy Marc Grossman on his recent trip to Kabul was very clear, that any peace talks with the Taliban should include the Afghan government," he told AFP.
"We are expecting a delegation from Qatar to come to Kabul to discuss with us the role of Afghans in peace talks and when and how peace talks in Qatar should happen and proceed.
"I believe there is a long way for the real peace talks with Taliban to happen as there are a lot of problems to be solved including our conditions and our role in it."
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