By Jeremy Herb - 06/19/13 12:21 AM EDT
The Obama administration will open direct peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar in the next few days.
The startling announcement Tuesday came the same day four Americans were killed during a rocket attack at Bagram Air Field, outside of Kabul.
U.S. and NATO forces handed over the lead on combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan security forces separately on Tuesday.
“This is an important first step toward reconciliation, although it is a very early step,” Obama said at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland on Tuesday. “We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), however, argued the U.S. should not begin talks until the Taliban have been militarily defeated and the Obama administration has clearly defined its post-2014 U.S. troop presence.
“Talking to them now, before we make a commitment about a post-2014 footprint, is giving them a wrong signal,” Graham told reporters Tuesday. “The best way to talk with the Taliban is ensure them you will defeat them on the battlefield, and they’re not assured of that.”
Obama, who just weeks ago vowed to turn the page in the U.S. “war on terror,” said the process would not be “easy or quick” and would be pursued “in parallel with our military approach.”
“We, in the meantime, remain fully committed to our military efforts to defeat al Qaeda and to support the Afghan National Security Forces,” Obama said.
Officials emphasized talks would take place between the Afghanistan 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,” one administration official said during a call with reporters.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argued the U.S. and Afghan governments were coming to the negotiating table from a position of strength.
“This is the right context to hold it because the Taliban is in a weaker position militarily,” Levin said.
The opening of the Taliban’s office in Doha on Tuesday was contingent on two points: The Taliban stating opposition to Afghanistan being used as a launching ground for foreign attacks and support for the peace process.
Administration officials said the U.S. also will seek to have the Taliban renounce ties to al Qaeda and recognize women’s rights.
Officials said Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had authorized the talks and that the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban that’s been one of the biggest threats to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, would be represented.
U.S. military leaders expressed doubts about the talks.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said during a teleconference briefing: “All I’ve seen of the Haqqanis would make it hard for me to believe they were reconcilable.”
Another important issue for the talks is the potential transfer of prisoners. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said it was “fundamentally important” for the negotiations to lead to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the lone U.S. soldier known to be held captive by the Taliban.
There were informal discussions last year over the possible swap of Bergdahl for five Afghan detainees at Guantánamo Bay, who would have been transferred to Qatar, but those discussions fell apart.
Republican senators including Graham and McCain said they would be opposed to releasing prisoners.
The Taliban are also likely to demand all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, which clashes with U.S. and NATO plans for a post-2014 residual force.
The move to put Afghan security forces in the lead for combat operations is another crucial step in ending the war because it is meant to allow U.S. and NATO forces to withdraw from combat operations by the end of 2014.
Over the next 18 months, the NATO forces will continue to fight in a supporting 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 the White House plans to draw the force down to about 33,000 troops over the next year. It has not said how large of a post-2014 force it will leave in Afghanistan when security is fully transferred to the Afghans at the end of 2014.
— Jonathan Easley contributed.