By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and ALISSA J. RUBIN
New York Times
WASHINGTON — A potential breakthrough in the effort to open Afghan peace negotiations appeared imminent on Tuesday when the Taliban announced the opening of a political office in Qatar and said they were willing to talk. American and Afghan officials said they would travel to the Persian Gulf emirate to meet insurgent negotiators within days.
If the talks begin, they would be a huge step in peace efforts that have been locked in an impasse for more than 18 months. American officials have long pushed for such talks, believing them crucial to stabilizing Afghanistan after the 2014 Western military withdrawal. But the process has been marked by false starts and seemingly unnavigable obstacles, including questions about who was actually empowered to speak for the Taliban’s secretive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.
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,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with President François Hollande of France at the Group of 8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland.
There has already been one bump: The plan that appeared to coming to fruition on Tuesday was the same proposal that the Taliban refused to move on more than a year ago, accusing the United States of negotiating in bad faith.
The insurgents did not say what prompted their apparent reversal. But talks in Qatar would be the first formal negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan, which began when American forces entered the country to rout Al Qaeda in 2001.
The war has since broadened into wide-ranging campaign against the Taliban and its allies. Yet even top American generals maintained that it could not be won on the battlefield, and American diplomats have engaged in nearly three years of secret meetings and working through diplomatic back channels to lay the groundwork for talks to begin.
Tuesday’s announcement appeared to signal that the Taliban had overcome resistance encountered at one time or another from nearly every quarter: 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,” Mr. Naim added, and seeks “a political and peaceful solution” to the conflict.
American officials had long insisted that the Taliban make both pledges before talks start. The first element, in particular, is vital — it represents the beginning of what is hoped will become a public break with Al Qaeda, which the Taliban sheltered before the Sept. 11 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 accept the Afghan Constitution. While Western officials have in the past suggested that the Constitution can be changed, the Obama administration on Tuesday stressed that accepting the current charter’s “protections for women and minorities” was considered a condition of any eventual peace deal.
In the shorter term, American officials said that American envoys are to meet later 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.”
President Karzai of referred to the impending opening of the Taliban office earlier in comments at a ceremony celebrating the transfer of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces from the American-led multinational forces in Afghanistan.
“Peace is the desire of the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said at a Kabul news conference after the ceremony. “Peace is a hope that the people of Afghanistan make sacrifices for every day.”
While he signaled his acceptance of the office’s opening, he made it clear that he wanted any talks moved to Afghanistan as soon as possible. The Taliban have insisted on holding talks on neutral ground outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, where much of the Taliban leadership currently lives.
American officials said they, too, wanted to see the office the talks eventually moved to Afghanistan. But “it’s not going to be possible in the near future,” said one of the administration officials.
Mr. Karzai’s concern is that the Taliban will use the office as a forum to try to re-establish their political legitimacy, especially in international circles, rather than confining the office to peace talks.
His concerns did not appear unfounded. The Taliban, in its statement on Tuesday, offered an expansive view of the role to be played by the Qatar office. The office would allow the Taliban “to improve its relations with countries around the world through understanding and talks,” as well as help it establish contact with the United Nations and aid groups, and yo talk to the media.
Meeting Afghans was qualified with the rejoinder “if needed.”
The insurgents offered little clarity on why they were now willing to open the office and begin talks with the United States and the government of Mr. Karzai, who they have for years derided as an American puppet.