A senior American official said the talks would start in Doha tomorrow, but US president Barack Obama cautioned against expectations of rapid progress, saying the peace process would not be easy or quick.
US officials say they hope this week’s talks will pave the way for the first-ever official peace negotiations between the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the Taleban.
“This is an important first step towards reconciliation; although it’s a very early step,” Mr Obama said after the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland. “We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”
Sources in the Obama administration said a Taleban office to be opened in the Qatari capital of Doha was the first step toward the ultimate US-Afghan goal of the Taleban fully renouncing links with al-Qaida.
The decision was a reversal of months of failed efforts to begin peace talks while Taleban militants intensified a campaign targeting urban centres and government installations.
In Doha a Taleban spokesman said the group opposes the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries and supports the negotiating process, two key demands of both the US and Afghan governments before talks could begin. He made the statement shortly after the deputy foreign minister of Qatar said the emir of the gulf state was to allow the office to open.
The spokesman said the Taleban are willing to use all legal means to end what they called the occupation of Afghanistan.
American officials said the US and Taleban representatives will hold bilateral meetings, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council is expected to follow up with its own talks a few days later.
They said that ultimately the Taleban must also break ties with al-Qaeda, end violence and accept Afghanistan’s constitution – including protections for women and minorities.
Despite Mr Karzai’s stated hopes that the process will move almost immediately to Afghanistan, US officials do not expect it to be possible in the near term .
Officials said that Mr Obama was personally involved in working with Mr Karzai to enable the opening of the office, and that US Secretary of State John Kerry had also played a major role. Mr Obama briefed fellow leaders at the summit.
The Taleban have for years refused to speak to the government or the Peace Council, set up by Mr Karzai three years ago, because they considered them to be American “puppets”. Taleban representatives have instead talked to American and other Western officials in Doha and other places, mostly in Europe.
“We don’t have any immediate preconditions for talks between the Afghan Peace Council and the Taleban, but we have principles laid down,” Mr Karzai said, adding that they include bringing an end to violence and the movement of talks to Afghanistan so they are not exploited by other countries.
The announcements came on the day Afghan forces took the lead nationwide from the Nato coalition for security, opening the way for the full withdrawal of most foreign troops in 18 months
The top US commander in Afghanistan, Marine General Joseph Dunford, said the only way to end the war was through a political solution.
“My perspective has always been that this war is going to have to end with political reconciliation and so I frankly would be supportive of any positive movement in terms of reconciliation particularly an Afghan-led and an Afghan-owned process that would bring reconciliation between the Afghan people and the Taleban in the context of the Afghan constitution,” he said.
For foreign combat troops on the ground, the transition means they will not be directly carrying the fight to the insurgency, but will advise and back up as needed with air support and medical evacuations.
The transition also comes at a time when violence is at levels matching the worst in 12 years, fuelling some Afghans’ concerns that their forces are not ready.
Mr Karzai said that in the coming months, coalition forces will gradually withdraw from Afghanistan’s provinces as the country’s security forces replace them.
Nato training since 2009 dramatically increased the size of the Afghan National Security Forces, bringing them up from 40,000 men and women six years ago to about 352,000 today. After transition, coalition troops will move entirely into a supporting role – training and mentoring, and in emergencies providing the Afghans back up in combat.
Afghans will now have the lead for security in all 403 districts of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Until now, they were responsible for 312 districts nationwide, where 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s population of nearly 30 million lives. Afghan security forces were until now carrying out 90 per cent of military operations around the country.
The handover paves the way for coalition forces – currently numbering around 100,000 troops from 48 countries – to leave the country.
Cameron backs US over diplomatic move to end 12-year Afghanistan conflict
DAVID Cameron voiced his support for US moves to open direct talks with the Taleban in Afghanistan last night.
The White House announced that formal meetings will begin within days at a new Taleban office in Qatar.
Speaking at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, where he discussed Afghanistan with US president Barack Obama, Mr Cameron said the UK had been “engaged and involved in this process right from the start”, adding that it was “the right thing to do”. Mr Cameron said: “I have long argued that we need to match the security response in Afghanistan . . . with a political process to try and make sure that as many people as possible give up violence and give up armed struggle and join the political process.
“That is exactly what I hope can happen with elements of the Taliban. That is the point of the Taliban office in Qatar. That is the point of the discussions that the Americans will have.
“We have been fully engaged and involved in this process right from the start, indeed from the moment I became Prime Minister. I think this is the right thing to do.” Mr Cameron acknowledged it would be difficult to speak with the Taleban, but drew parallels with the peace process in Northern Ireland itself.
He said: “Of course it involves all sorts of difficulties. But in the end, we are standing in a place where people who were once committed to violence decided to give up that violence and join the political process, and that is what is required.”
He added: “That shouldn’t signal any weakening of our security response – it absolutely doesn’t.”