- Nuland: "We are prepared to support a process that the Afghans support"
- The Taliban have a preliminary deal to open an office in Qatar, a statement says
- They want detainees freed from Guantanamo Bay as a condition for talks
- It appears to be their first public offer of talks without a U.S. withdrawal
The Afghan Taliban are prepared to open an "office outside the country for talks with foreigners," a purported spokesman for the movement said in a statement released Tuesday.
The statement could signal the Taliban's public willingness to talk to the United States for the first time.
Calling himself "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan spokesman," Zabiullah Mujaheed said the Taliban have a "preliminary agreement with Qatar and other respective sides."
The Taliban are asking for the release of prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for opening the office, he said.
He said the group is also "ready for talks and negotiation inside the country."
It appears to be the first time the Taliban -- who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when they were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion -- have offered talks without the condition of an American withdrawal from the country.
It is not clear if the purported spokesman speaks for all parts of the loose-knit Afghan Taliban.
His statement was released in Pashto, a local language.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has always tried to solve any problem with its opposite side through talks," the statement said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul responded cautiously to the statement.
"We support an Afghan-led reconciliation process in which the Taliban breaks with al Qaeda, renounces violence and accepts the Afghan constitution, especially protections for minorities and women," said Gavin Sundwall, a U.S. Embassy spokesman.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States is prepared to support an Afghan-led reconciliation. "But this process will only be successful if the Taliban are prepared to renounce violence, break ties with al Qaeda, support the Afghan constitution in all of its elements, including human rights for all citizens, and particularly for women," she said.
Nuland said U.S. officials are not aware of any formal announcement, "but we are prepared to support a process that the Afghans support. "
A top Afghan peace official said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the Taliban statement.
"We are optimistic that they want to come to the negotiating table, but we have to be cautious because words alone are not enough," said Ismail Qassemyar, a member of the country's High Peace Council.
He agreed with the Americans that talks had to take place between Afghans.
The peace talks are "an Afghan process .... Americans can't give them anything in Afghanistan because America can't make any decision on behalf of the Afghan nation," he said.
Last week he warned against the United States or other nations trying to strike their own peace deals with the militants.
"We ask our international friends not to hold any kind of talks with the Taliban leaders," Qassemyar said December 27.
Recent media reports have said the United States and other foreign governments with a stake in the Afghan war may try to strike a separate deal with the Taliban.
The Washington Post reported in December that the Obama administration reached a tentative deal with Taliban negotiators that would have included the Taliban's public renunciation of international terrorism and the transfer of five Afghans from Guantanamo Bay.
The deal collapsed, the Post said, because of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's objections.
Any talk of a peace process slowed in September when suicide bombers killed senior Afghan peace negotiator and former President Burhannudin Rabbani.
Karzai told CNN in December that the government cannot hold talks until the Islamic militia identifies a representative with the authority to negotiate.
Karzai said Rabbani's death showed that "we were actually talking to nobody."
"A man who came in the name of a messenger for peace turned out to be a suicide bomber," Karzai said. "Therefore, we have now clearly said that we will welcome a Taliban address, but that address must have the clarity that this representative is authorized and is representing the Taliban movement as we see it."
Qassemyar said a Taliban office in Qatar would by no means legitimize the Islamist group.
"We accept an address for the Taliban in Qatar if they come there as a movement or a group, not a government or use it as a propaganda venue," he said.