Ten years after 9/11, Islamist groups prepare to open political office in Qatar to conduct peace talks

Final arrangements have been put in place for the opening of a Taliban mission in the state of Qatar — the Islamist insurgent group's first formal diplomatic office since it was evicted from power after 9/11 and internationally proscribed for its links to al-Qaeda.

Indian diplomatic sources have told The Hindu the mission will be designated as a political office for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban calls itself, and have the privileges but not the formal protection of a diplomatic mission.

Taliban envoy Tayyab Agha, former private secretary to Mullah Omar, met representatives of the United States in Qatar last week to hammer out details on the role of the office, the sources said. Shahabudin Dilawar and Sohail Shaheen, both former Taliban diplomats, accompanied Mr. Agha.

Mullah Muhammad Zaeef, a Kabul-based interlocutor between the West and the Taliban's Pakistan leadership who served as the Emirate's envoy to Islamabad before 9/11, is said to be among those being considered to serve as the head of the political office. Mr. Zaeef's appointment is however being resisted by hardliners in Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar's Pakistan-based command council, the sources said.

News that the Taliban was planning an overseas mission first emerged in September. Both Istanbul and Qatar were considered possible headquarters for the mission. The Gulf kingdom was finally picked, the sources said, because of its proximity to the region — and also because the U.S. Air Force base there would facilitate logistics.

Missteps

Efforts to talk peace with the Taliban have been marked by missteps. Earlier this year, Afghan authorities had announced they were calling off negotiations with the Taliban, after a suicide bomber assassinated key peace negotiator and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani. Bismillah Khan, Afghanistan's Interior Minister, and Rangeen Dafdar Spenta, its national security adviser blamed the killing on Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai later told journalists his government could not “keep talking to suicide bombers, therefore we have stopped talking about talking to the Taliban until we have an address for the Taliban.”

The decision to allow the Taliban to open an office would provide negotiators with such an address — but efforts are divided on the prospects of successful negotiations.

Past efforts to secure agreement — which include three rounds of meetings with Mr. Agha and separate talks with Ibrahim Haqqani, the brother-in-law of key Taliban-allied warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani — floundered because the United States refused to commit to a full pull-out of western troops, saying they were needed to make sure that jihadist groups with global ambitions did not re-establish themselves in the country.

Islamabad, meanwhile, is reported to have moved forward with fresh efforts to secure a peace deal on its side of the Afghan border. Fresh talks are said to have been initiated with Wali Muhammad, commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in Waziristan, and his Bajaur-area counterpart, Faqir Muhammad.

Earlier this year, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had chaired an all party meeting which called for talks, saying jihadists in the tribal area were “our people”—even though the groups are responsible for the killing of at least 3,600 citizens of the country since 2008.

Pakistan hopes that simultaneous peace deals with Islamist jihadists on both sides of the border, involving ceding some political power in return for an end to violence, will help end an insurgency its army has so far failed to contain.

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