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Taliban take major step toward Afghan peace talks

Taliban representative Muhammad Naeem spoke at the official opening of the group’s office in Doha, Qatar Tuesday. US envoys are to meet with representatives this week.

Osama Faisal/Associated Press

Taliban representative Muhammad Naeem spoke at the official opening of the group’s office in Doha, Qatar Tuesday. US envoys are to meet with representatives this week.

WASHINGTON — The Taliban signaled a breakthrough in efforts to open Afghan peace negotiations Tuesday, announcing the opening of a political office in Qatar and new readiness to talk with US and Afghan officials, who said in turn that they would travel to meet insurgent negotiators there within days.

If the talks begin, they would be a significant step in peace efforts that have been locked in an impasse for nearly 18 months, after the Taliban walked out and accused the United States of negotiating in bad faith. US officials have long pushed for such talks, believing them crucial to stabilizing Afghanistan after the 2014 Western military withdrawal.

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The Taliban overture coincided with an important symbolic moment in that withdrawal: the formal announcement Tuesday of a complete security handover from US-led troops to Afghan forces across the country. And that shift has already become obvious in recent months as the Afghan forces have tangibly taken the lead — and as the Taliban have responded by increasing the tempo of attacks against them.

Yet since at least 2009, even top US generals maintained that it could not be won on the battlefield, and US diplomats have engaged in nearly three years of secret meetings and working through diplomatic back channels to lay the groundwork for talks to begin.

Diplomats and intermediaries from Germany, Norway, and Britain have also played crucial roles, administration officials said Tuesday, and some said they believed Pakistan had played a more active role in recent months to urge the exiled Taliban leadership to move toward talks.

President Obama called the Taliban’s announcement “an important first step toward reconciliation,” but cautioned that it was only “a very early step.”

“We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road,” Obama said at a meeting with President François Hollande of France at the Group of Eight summit meeting in Northern Ireland.

There have been plenty of bumps already. Over the past 18 months, the peace effort has encountered pressure from nearly every quarter at one time or another: President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the exiled Taliban leadership, the Taliban’s patrons in Pakistan, and critics in the United States who have reacted coolly to what they perceive as talking to terrorists.

A pair of Afghan mullahs in black turbans made the Taliban announcement in a televised address broadcast from Doha, the capital of Qatar. The Taliban’s political and military goals “are limited to Afghanistan,” said Muhammad Naim, the Taliban spokesman who read the statement.

The Taliban “would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan,” Naim added, and seeks “a political and peaceful solution” to the conflict.

The appearance seemed to answer one immediate question hanging over the peace efforts: who was empowered to speak for the Taliban’s secretive leader in exile, Mullah Muhammad Omar. US officials said that recent signals had made them sure that the Qatar office was being opened by Mullah Omar’s true intermediaries, including the insurgents’ stated lead negotiator, Tayeb Agha.

As well, the Taliban’s wording Tuesday adhered to previous requirements by US officials in informal talks in recent weeks, officials said. In particular, the statement represented the beginning of what is hoped will become a public break with Al Qaeda, which the Taliban sheltered before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the officials said.

“Together, they fulfill the requirement for the Taliban to open a political office in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government,” a senior Obama administration official said.

Along with getting the Taliban to disown international terrorist groups, the ultimate goal of the talks, from a Western and Afghan government point of view, is to persuade the Taliban to disarm and to accept the Afghan Constitution. While Western officials have in the past suggested that the constitution can be changed, the Obama administration stressed Tuesday that accepting the current charter’s “protections for women and minorities” was considered a condition of any eventual peace deal.

In the shorter term, US officials said US envoys are to meet this week with Taliban representatives in Qatar, and then members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is to represent the government in talks, are to travel to the Persian Gulf emirate to sit down with the insurgents.

But the first meetings will probably feature little more than an exchange of agendas, another senior administration official said, cautioning against expectations for the talks to yield substantive results any time soon.

“There is no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all,” the official said.

Talks between the United States and the Taliban “can help advance the process, but the core of it is going to be negotiations among Afghans and the level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one would expect,” the official said. “So it is going to be a long hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all.”

Karzai referred to the impending opening of the Taliban office earlier in comments at the ceremony Tuesday celebrating the transfer of all security responsibilities across Afghanistan to Afghan forces.

“Peace is the desire of the people of Afghanistan,” Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul. “Peace is a hope that the people of Afghanistan make sacrifices for every day.”

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