The Taliban has confirmed it has come to an “initial agreement” to open a political office overseas as part of peace talks with the US, according to a statement.
In a statement that was emailed to news organisations and published on their purported website, Voice of Jihad, on Tuesday, the Taliban said it had held “preliminary talks with relevant sides including Qatar” to open an office outside Afghanistan.
“We’re now prepared, while having a strong presence inside [Afghanistan] to have a political office outside [the country] for negotiations,” the statement said, reiterating the stance that all foreign troops must leave to end the war.
A senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, the government’s official body charged with seeking a negotiated end to the country’s war, said he welcomed the Taliban move.
“It is important for the Taliban to negotiate with the international community, especially with the US, and we welcome their decision to set up a political office,” Arsala Rahmani, a top negotiator on the council, told the Reuters news agency.
“It is a gesture of good faith. The Taliban are blacklisted by the US so it is very important for them to engage in talks with the US,” he said.
A senior Taliban source told Al Jazeera that representatives from the group are already in Qatar, and that they plan on opening an official mission there on the condition that the US free five high-ranking Taliban members from the US off-shore Guantanamo Bay prison.
According to the source, the US has told the Taliban that the freeing of prisoners needs to be approved by the US senate, and that this process is going ahead.
Under the deal, the prisoners would be released to live in Qatar under an asylum deal, but they would be prevented from returning to Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, opposes the prisoner release, according to a spokesperson. He made an earlier statement that it was already unconstitutional to hold Afghans arrested domestically in a foreign jail, and therefore to offer a deal restricting their return home would also be against the law.
“This is the first time [the Taliban] have said publicly that yes, they will have these talks through an office in Qatar,” reported Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith from Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“So with this notable step … if [the talks are] going to happen outside Afghanistan, we’re waiting to see what the Afghan government has to say about this.”
The Afghan government recalled its ambassador to Qatar last month for consultations over reports that the Taliban was looking to open an office in Doha, the Qatari capital.
Karzai later said in a statement that his government “agreed” to the idea of a Taliban liaison office being opened in Qatar.
It is unclear, however, what role the Afghan government would play in any talks between the Taliban and the United States.
The Taliban refers to Karzai’s government as a “puppet regime” of the US, and said in its statement that “Afghans must be allowed to create an Islamic government of their choice that be no harm to any one”.
The Taliban statement rejected some media reports that negotiations with the US had begun, but according to a source in Pakistan early discussions had been 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 comments come 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.
The Afghan government’s own talks with the Taliban have been on hold since September, when Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chief of Karzai’s High Peace Council, was assassinated by a Taliban suicide bomber at his Kabul home.