Afghanistan officials will open a U.S.-backed office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as early as Tuesday to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban, according to senior administration officials.
The announcement comes as President Hamid Karzai announced on 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 on Monday night during their summit in Northern Ireland. It will be the first time that the U.S. will have direct talks with the Taliban since the start of the war.
Taliban officials in Doha are expected to release a statement later on Tuesday that will underscore that they disapprove of using Afghan soil to plan attacks threatening other countries as well voicing their support for the peace process, according to an 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," said one administration official.
In the first talks, which could come in a matter of weeks, administration officials expect little substantive beyond U.S., Afghanistan and Taliban negotiators exchanging agendas.
Among the issues that U.S. officials are 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 an 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 American 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 administration official warned. "This is a new development, potentially significant, but peace is not at hand."
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.
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 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."
By Aamer Madhani, USA Today
USA Today / Gannett