France's defense minister on Sunday backed U.S. efforts to open peace talks with the Taliban, saying a proposed Taliban liaison office outside Afghanistan would provide a venue for those within the radical Islamic movement who are willing to explain their positions.
The idea of opening a Taliban political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf nation of Qatar, has become the central element of efforts to draw the insurgent movement into peace talks and end more than a decade of war.
Speaking at the end of a brief visit to French troops, Gerard Longuet said he had asked Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the idea.
Karzai "explained the reasons ... for Doha as a venue for meetings where the Taliban who wish to do so can express themselves and meet with Afghans or members of the coalition who wish to talk to them," Longuet said.
"It seems that there is a part among the forces fighting against the (government), there is a will to explain themselves, to be understood. We should never close that door."
Earlier this week, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that Washington plans to continue a series of secret meetings with Taliban representatives in Europe and the Persian Gulf region next year.
The U.S. outreach this year had progressed to the point that there was active discussion of two steps the Taliban seeks as precursors to negotiations, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Trust-building measures under discussion involve setting up a Taliban headquarters office and the release from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of about five Afghan prisoners believed to be affiliated with the Taliban.
Longuet said he was satisfied with the improving performance of the Afghan security forces and the pace of the transfer of responsibility for security to them. NATO and the Afghan government expect the transition to be complete by 2014, when coalition troops are due to end their combat role.
Currently, about 3,600 French soldiers are serving in the NATO force, mostly in northeastern Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the death on Saturday of a NATO service member in a noncombat incident brought to 544 the number of NATO troops who died in Afghanistan in 2011. A NATO statement provided no further details.
The yearly total for 2011 is considerably lower than for 2010, when more than 700 troops died. But the numbers of wounded have remained consistently high, dipping only slightly from last year's total of more than 5,000 service members. And despite the drop in the numbers of deaths, 2011 has been the second-deadliest for NATO troops in the 10-year war.
About 840 Afghan soldiers and policemen have died in 2011, according to a count by The Associated Press.
The U.S.-led coalition has repeatedly touted its success against the guerrillas in 2011, which marked the high point of the international military presence in Afghanistan with more than 130,000 troops on the ground. NATO says it has taken hundreds of Taliban commanders off the battlefields and seized control areas which once represented the insurgency's heartland in the south and east of the country.
NATO's numerical strength started shrinking in recent weeks and is due to fall to less than 100,000 by the end of 2012, as the force prepares to end its combat role in 2014.
Faced with an overwhelming superiority in numbers and firepower by the allied and Afghan government forces, the Taliban have largely avoided direct combat. Instead, they have relied mainly on roadside bombs, small ambushes, and hit-and-run tactics to harass and inflict losses on the security forces.
Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich
(This version CORRECTS Corrects year in paragraph 13.)