WASHINGTON U.S. officials will meet with the Taliban on Thursday in a major breakthrough aimed at opening peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday called the talks and the Islamic movement's opening of an office in Doha, Qatar, to host the talks an "important first step toward reconciliation," even as he cautioned that there will be "a lot of bumps in the road."
After nearly 12 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, the administration is pinning much of its hopes on a political settlement to the war as it moves ahead with plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops by the close of 2014. The announcement came as the United States marked the handover of security from U.S.-led NATO forces to Afghanistan forces.
Administration officials noted Obama had talked with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the emir of Qatar to push plans for an "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process."
Obama briefed leaders at a summit of the world's largest economies in Northern Ireland on the developments, and administration officials said there was "significant international support" for a reconciliation process "even with all the attendant difficulties."
As leaders hailed talk of ending the violence, there were signs of continuing friction: Karzai said members of the Afghan High Peace Council would travel to Qatar to meet with the Taliban but said the discussions should quickly be moved onto Afghan soil. The Taliban, in a statement posted on their website, said they would meet with Afghan officials "in due appropriate time."
Karzai's peace council members have been targets for the insurgents, as one apparently was when a bomb exploded Tuesday morning in Kabul, the Afghan capital a sharp counterpoint to the talk of ending the violence.
Mohammed Mohaqiq, a peace council and parliament member, escaped the blast unhurt, but three civilians were killed and 30 people were wounded, including some of Mohaqiq's bodyguards.
A chairman of the council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated in 2011.
Also Tuesday, U.S. officials confirmed that four NATO-led security force service members died after an attack in eastern Afghanistan.
Karzai appointed the peace council almost three years ago in hopes of negotiating a political settlement, but until Tuesday he had little to show for it.
Taliban leaders repeatedly had dismissed the idea of negotiating with Karzai, whom they consider a "puppet" of Western governments. But they said Tuesday they were willing to engage in the talks, releasing a statement that said they opposed the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries and supported an Afghan peace process.
White House officials said the two statements are a first step toward distancing the movement from international terrorism and that they fulfill the requirements for the Taliban to start negotiations.
Yet as they hailed the move as an "important first step," senior administration officials acknowledged the hurdles posed by more than 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan, noting that the trust level on both sides is "extremely low."
"Many insurgencies end in negotiated peace," said a senior administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the talks. "But there's no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all."
Obama said the Taliban and other insurgent groups will need to break ties with al-Qaida, end violence and accept an Afghan constitution, including protections for women and minorities.
The move drew condemnation from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who said he was concerned the administration had agreed to talks "despite little indication that the Taliban is serious about cutting its ties to al-Qaida, renouncing terrorism or respecting the Afghan government."
Afghan women, in particular, are likely to watch the talks warily. Some have said that if negotiations bring the Taliban into the government, it could erode the modest gains in rights women have made in the past few years.
Any progress could take years, said Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07. He noted it took the Taliban nearly a year to issue Tuesday's "quiet" statement saying they supported peace talks.
"If it takes a year to get that, it might take a good long time to get any more substance," he said.
In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton first announced the administration's support for direct negotiations with the Taliban, which Karzai had embraced before.
The U.S. effort to start talks had made only fitful progress over the past two years, with one early stumbling block a Taliban demand that the United States release some prisoners it holds at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Taliban are holding a U.S. soldier, Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, of the 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, who was taken prisoner four years ago.
There is no agreement for a detainee exchange, but a senior administration official said the issue is a "topic for the types of discussions that the U.S. will have with the Taliban."
White House officials say they expect the first meeting to be an exchange of agendas rather than detailed discussion, and it is likely to be followed with a second meeting in a few weeks.
"One of the things we want to talk about from the beginning is how they're going to cut ties with al-Qaida how quickly, exactly how they're going to do it, what it means," the senior administration official said.
At least one potential problem with a negotiated settlement aimed at ending the violence is that the Taliban may not be able to speak for all the insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan, including the Haqqani Network, which has been blamed for many suicide attacks, particularly in Kabul.
The White House said it believes the Haqqanis will be represented by the negotiators, dubbed the Taliban Political Commission and authorized by Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar.
The Taliban have said they want NATO forces out of Afghanistan, but the Obama administration has negotiated a strategic partnership with Afghanistan for support after 2014. White House officials said the exact scope of the U.S. presence has yet to be determined, but that if the talks lead to a decrease in violence, that could change U.S. calculations.
"If it takes a year to get that, it might take a good long time to get any more substance."
former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, on the Taliban's statement backing peace talks