The United States will open direct peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, U.S. officials said Tuesday, in what could be a critical milestone in the drawdown of the war in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said that the Taliban was setting up an office for the negotiations in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday, and would begin direct talks with the United States in the next few days.
The peace negotiations process has been a key element of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, and the agreement to start talks could represent a significant step forward.
U.S. officials stressed that the key to negotiations will be the talks taking place directly between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with the U.S. playing a side role.
“The core of this process is not going to be the U.S.-Taliban talks — those 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,” said one administration official on a background call with reporters.
The opening of the Taliban’s Doha office was contingent on two points: The Taliban stating that it opposes Afghanistan being used as a launching ground for foreign attacks; and support for the peace process.
It did not require that the Taliban renounce ties to al Qaeda, however. Administration officials said the U.S. will seek to have the Taliban agree to this demand during the negotiations, as well as recognizing women's rights.
The peace talks have been authorized by Taliban leader Mullah Omar, administration officials said.
The U.S. officials expressed caution at how much would be accomplished in the talks, warning that the negotiations will be a “complex, long and messy” process.
“There’s no guarantee this will happen quickly, if at all,” said the administration official.
While officials expressed caution about what would be gained from the negotiations, they said the talks’ success could play a role in how many U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan after 2014 if violence there drops.
The announcement of Taliban negotiations came as the U.S. handed off the lead on security operations to the Afghan forces Tuesday.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai lauded the announcement regarding security forces as a “historic day.”
“This is a historic moment for our country and from tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces,” Karzai said at a ceremony at the U.S. and NATO headquarters in Kabul, according to The Associated Press.
Just miles away from the ceremony a stark reminder of continued violence in Afghanistan took place as a bomb targeting an Afghan lawmaker exploded, killing three civilians, the AP reported.
The move to put Afghan security forces in the lead for combat operations is a key step as U.S. and NATO forces plan to withdraw from combat operations by the end of 2014. The U.S. had been leading security operations in the country since ousting the Taliban in a war that began in 2001.
Over the next 18 months, the NATO forces will continue to fight in a support role, with the goal of getting Afghan forces fully ready to handle security by the end of 2014.
Approximately 66,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, and will serve in an ongoing training mission for Afghan forces, as well as providing advice and support for operations. The U.S. plans to draw down to about 33,000 troops until the next Afghan presidential election in April 2014.
President Obama has not yet announced the size of a post-2014 U.S. force, which is expected to play an advisory role and conduct counterterrorism operations. A range of 8,000 to 12,000 troops has been suggested by NATO officials.
This story was posted at 10:45 a.m. and updated at 11:27 a.m.