U.S., Afghans, Taliban to begin peace talks in Qatar

Aamer Madhani and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - Afghanistan officials will open a U.S.-backed office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as early as Tuesday to facilitate direct peace talks with the Taliban, according to three senior administration officials.

The announcement comes as Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Tuesday that Afghan security forces have taken the lead from NATO. The White House officials spoke on the condition they not be identified because the government of Qatar has yet to announce the official opening of the office in the capital of Doha.

President Obama briefed fellow Group of Eight leaders about the development Monday night during their summit in Northern Ireland.

There have been efforts since 2010 to engage the Taliban by Afghanistan and the United States, but those attempts have proved fruitless. The relaunch of talks, which are expected to include senior administration officials, would mark the most serious effort by all sides to come to some sort of political reconciliation just as the United States tries to wind down the war.

Taliban officials in Doha were expected to release a statement later on Tuesday that will underscore that they are "opposed the use Afghan soil to threaten other countries" and voice their support for the peace process, according to one administration official.

"These statements represent an important first step toward reconciliation, the process that after 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan will certainly promise to be complex, long and messy," the administration official said.

In the first talks, which could come in a matter of weeks, the administration officials said they expect little substantive beyond U.S., Afghanistan and Taliban negotiators exchanging agendas.

Among the issues that the U.S. is expected to press the Taliban on are cutting ties to al-Qaeda and returning U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl who went missing in Afghanistan nearly four years ago and is believed to be held by members of the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network.

The Taliban political commission, which is based in Doha, was authorized by Taliban leader Mullah Omar to begin the talks with American and Afghan officials, according to one administration official.

The officials said they do not know, at this point, who would represent the Taliban delegation in the talks, but express confidence it would representative of the entire movement.

While the administration officials said talks with the Taliban mark an important moment in 12-year-old conflict, they remained guarded about the development.

"We need to be realistic," one of the officials warned. "This is a new development, potentially significant, but peace is not at hand."

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he didn't know what impact the peace talks will have on levels of violence in Afghanistan. Afghan security forces, Dunford said, are losing 100 to 120 soldiers and police officers per week.

The Haqqani network, militants responsible for major attacks in Kabul and deadly assaults on U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, are unlikely to be swayed by peace talks, he said.

From what he'd seen, Dunford said, it's "hard to believe they are reconcilable."

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said talks will have little effect on military operations in Afghanistan.

"The talks will go slowly and should be accompanied by modest expectations," O'Hanlon said.

The White House said the government officials in Pakistan, who the U.S. believe have undermined NATO efforts in Afghanistan, have played an important role in prodding the Taliban to take part in peace talks.

"They understand that there is no stability in Pakistan without stability in Afghanistan," said one senior administration official.

The administration officials also cautioned that they don't expect the talks to have an immediate impact on reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military's combat role is scheduled to cease by the end of 2014, but it remains to be seen what sort of presence President Obama will be willing to maintain in Afghanistan beyond next year.

The success of peace talks will likely play an important role in shaping Obama's decision.

"We don't expect that to happen immediately, perhaps even quickly," one senior administration official said. "But we hope it can contribute to that. The levels and nature of our presence are obviously going to be influenced, on one hand by levels of violence in Afghanistan and on the other by the presence or absence of international terrorists."


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