The Taliban announced Tuesday that after nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan they are ready for talks with the United States, as senior Obama administration officials said discussions with the Islamic militants who sheltered Osama bin Laden would start within days.
Earlier Tuesday, another milestone was reached as Afghan troops assumed full control of their nation's security from NATO forces.
The United States will hold its first formal meeting with the Taliban in "a couple of days" in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, and that will be followed "within days" by a meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government's High Peace Council, senior Obama administration officials said in a background briefing.
The Taliban said they had opened a political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, to facilitate the peace process.
President Obama, who was attending the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland, said the opening of the Taliban office is "an important first step," but he predicted the talks will not be easy.
Senior U.S. officials also struck a cautious note.
"We need to be realistic. This is a new development, potentially a significant development, but peace is not at hand," one official said.
U.S. officials said Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had authorized the talks.
The Pakistan-based Haqqani Network of terrorists also will be represented in the talks, U.S. officials said. The network has attacked international targets, including the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2011. U.S. and Afghan officials see the Haqqani Network as a potential spoiler in any peace process.
Tuesday's developments resulted from months of diplomatic efforts, especially by the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Qatar. U.S. officials emphasized that Afghan officials will lead the process.
Taliban spokesman Mohammed Naim said in Doha that the militants support peace talks and do not want Afghan soil to be used to harm other countries.
"This is code for: 'We will not let international terrorists use our territory' without getting into the semantics of what is terrorism," said Michael Semple of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
"They have created political cover for themselves for engagement with the U.S. and Afghan governments."
U.S. officials said the Taliban statement fulfilled conditions for the group to open a political office for negotiations with the Afghan government.
U.S. and Afghan officials had insisted that the Taliban cut ties with al Qaeda, lay down their arms and recognize the Afghan Constitution.
A senior U.S. official said the demand that the Taliban sever ties with al Qaeda was not a precondition for talks, but it is an eventual outcome of the negotiation process.
The Taliban did not mention a cessation of hostilities inside Afghanistan.
"Never in history has any serious negotiating party announced their final concessions on the way to the bargaining table. Why should the Taliban be any different?" said Mr. Semple.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when they were toppled in a U.S.-led invasion for hosting bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. They imposed a brutal regime that enforced extreme Islamic law and forbade women from getting an education. U.S. troops overthrew the Taliban after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The Taliban and U.S. delegations will exchange agendas at their first meeting.
The U.S. agenda will include ways to see how the Taliban can cut ties with al Qaeda and release U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in June 2009.
The Taliban ditched U.S.-led efforts to make peace in March 2012, citing the Obama administration's inaction on its demand to release five high-value Taliban detainees from the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Taliban have refused to talk with the Karzai administration, which they derisively refers to as a Western puppet. In their statement Tuesday, they did not refer to the Karzai administration by name but offered to talk to "other Afghans."
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