U.S. diplomats have noted with interest that a prominent Taliban spokesman, when asked by a Saudi newspaper whether it would host al-Qaeda once more if it regained power, answered that the leaders of al-Qaeda “are no longer interested in Afghanistan.” That appears to some officials to signal acceptance of one key U.S. and Saudi goal in peace talks in Afghanistan.
The comments by Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, one of the Taliban’s top spokesmen, were made last Saturday to Asharq al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned newspaper in London. He repeated some hardline Taliban policies, including a promise to keep attacking the U.S. Embassy and military headquarters in Kabul. But Ahmadi repeatedly endorsed the Taliban’s decision to open a office in Qatar and begin peace negotiations.
“Our conditions during the negotiations will be an end to occupation and for the U.S. to leave the affairs of Afghanistan to the Afghan people,” Ahmadi said. He seemed to welcome negotiations as a sign of the deteriorating U.S. position in Afghanistan, noting: “The U.S. side is prepared to negotiate with the Islamic Emirate [his description of the Taliban] after it did everything in its power to forcibly eliminate our jihadist power; however, it failed to achieve anything tangible in this regard.”
The Taliban spokesman’s statement endorsing negotiations comes as U.S. commanders are struggling to cope with an Afghan population that has been enraged by the apparently accidental burning of Korans by U.S. troops. The Koran incident has added to the precariousness of the U.S. position in Afghanistan and made a diplomatic settlement all the more urgent.
Ahmadi didn’t endorse the other two major outcomes the United States seeks from talks, which are that the Taliban renounce violence and accept the tolerant provisions of the Afghan constitution. But he did say that the Taliban would allow women’s education and other rights, “in light of Islamic teachings,” and that the group might allow some satellite television channels.
These slight concessions by Ahmadi will not do much to reassure non-Taliban Afghans, many of whom fear that in its eagerness to withdraw forces from the country, the United States will sanction the return of a Taliban leadership that is unpopular in most parts of the country.
But the Ahmadi interview is the clearest sign yet that the process of negotiation led by State Department representative Marc Grossman is beginning to gather momentum — even as the broader U.S. position in the country deteriorates.