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Report: Taliban to be brought in from the cold

/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

The United States has reportedly approved a plan to allow the Taliban to open a political office in Qatar to enable formal peace talks to begin.

The U.K.'s Times newspaper said officials in Washington had agreed that the office could open by the end of 2011. However, the Taliban still had concerns that its representatives at the office in the Gulf state might be arrested.

A Western diplomatic source told the paper the office "will not be an embassy or a consulate, but a residence where they can be treated like a political party."

"It will be an address where they have a political office," the diplomat added.

The source said the office would not be allowed to be used for fundraising purposes.

An Afghan official told The Times that the Kabul government was split over the issue.

"Opponents argue it would give legitimacy to a disliked and terrorist entity, whereas its supporters wish it would deny Pakistan the monopoly on Taliban," the official was quoted as saying.

Doubts over peace
He doubted that any peace talks would succeed.

"There are two parallel worlds, the world of Kabul and Washington and the world of Taliban and their Pakistani patrons," the official told the Times. "The latter thinks of its impending victory over fragmented Kabul and an exhausted international community, whereas the former engages in wishful thinking such as finding compromise solutions with the Taliban and convincing Pakistan and Iran to cease their strategic wars with the West by some nice declaration at international conferences."

The paper said the White House refused to comment on the article. A Taliban spokesman on Monday told NBC News that "we wouldn't set up any office outside Afghanistan."

As recently as Saturday, the Taliban vowed to keep fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan until all American troops had left the country and claimed it had nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In June, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave the first official confirmation that the U.S. was in contact with the Taliban about a possible peace deal.

"Peace talks have started with (the Taliban) already and it is going well," Karzai told journalists in Kabul at that time.

"The foreign military and especially the United States itself is going ahead with these negotiations," he added. "The peace negotiations between (the) Afghan government and the Taliban movement are not yet based on a certain agenda or physical (meetings), there are contacts established."

Despite the apparent prospect of talks, attacks by the Taliban show now sign of abating.

On Sunday, five Afghans were killed, 77 American troops were injured and 17 Afghans were hurt when a suicide attacker set off a truck bomb outside a NATO base in Wardak province on Saturday.

Lt. Col. Wayne Perry, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told NBC News that none of the Americans appeared to have suffered life-threatening injuries.

"The majority of injured ISAF personnel will likely return to duties shortly," an ISAF statement added.

The suicide bomber was driving a truck carrying firewood when he rammed into the outpost's entrance, according to NATO.

"Most of the force of the explosion was absorbed by the protective barrier," ISAF said in a statement.

Quoting US Army spokesman Major David Eastburn, AFP reported that the explosion left a "20-foot hole in the wall."

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

"Each year, 9/11 reminds the Afghans of an event in which they had no role whatsoever," a Taliban statement emailed to media said. "American colonialism has shed the blood of tens of thousands of miserable and innocent Afghans."

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, after the Taliban, who then ruled the country, refused to hand over Osama bin Laden.

While the overall international death toll dropped by 14 percent in the first half of the year, the number of Americans who died remained virtually unchanged, 197 this year compared with 195 in the first six months of last year, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

In a midyear report last July, the U.N. said 1,462 Afghan civilians also lost their lives in the first six months of this year in the crossfire of the battle between Taliban insurgents and Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces.

During the first half of last year, 1,271 Afghan civilians were killed.