KABUL: The Taliban and the US announced on Tuesday that they would hold talks on finding a political solution for ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan as the militant movement opened an office in Qatar.
A senior US official said the talks would start in Doha on Thursday.
But President Barack Obama cautioned that the process won’t be quick or easy. He described the opening of the Taliban political office as an “important first step towards reconciliation” between the group and the government of Afghanistan, and predicted there would be bumps along the way.
President Obama, who was attending the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for taking a courageous step by sending representatives to discuss peace with the Taliban.
“It’s good news. We’re very pleased with what has taken place,” United States Secretary of State John Kerry said in Washington.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called opening the office “the right thing to do”.
US officials said the process could take many years and be subject to reversals.
They said they hoped the meeting would open the way for the first official peace talks between the government of President Karzai and the Taliban.
The top US commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen Joseph Dunford, said the only way to end the war was through a political solution.
In Doha, Ali Bin Fahad Al Hajri, assistant to the foreign minister of Qatar, said the amir of the state had given the go-ahead for the office to open. “Negotiations are the only way for peace in Afghanistan,” he said.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naim said the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ was willing to use all legal means to end the ‘occupation of Afghanistan’.
However, he added: “The jihad continues to end the occupation and establish an Islamic emirate. To achieve this goal, we will follow every legitimate means. The emirate of the Taliban, with its military effort, has a strategic goal related to the future of Afghanistan. The movement is not intending to harm any other parties and will not allow anybody to use Afghan territory to threaten other countries.”
The Obama administration officials said the US and Taliban representatives would hold bilateral meetings. President Karzai’s High Peace Council is expected to follow up with its own talks with the Taliban a few days later.But the Taliban spokesman said: “We don’t recognise the Afghan government of Karzai. The talks will be with the Americans only in Doha under the patronage of Qatar. We represent the people of Afghanistan. We don’t represent the Karzai government.”
The US officials said the first meeting would focus on an exchange of agendas and consultations on next steps.
The Taliban office is in one of the diplomatic areas in Doha. Its sign reads: The Political Bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Doha.
Despite President Karzai’s stated hope that the process will move almost immediately to Afghanistan, US officials do not expect that to be possible in the near future.
The Taliban have for years refused to speak to the government or the High Peace Council set up by President Karzai three years ago, because they considered them to be US ‘puppets’.
Taliban representatives have instead talked to American and other Western officials in Doha and other places, mostly in Europe.
Officials said President Obama was personally involved in working with Mr Karzai to enable the opening of the office and Mr Kerry had also played a major role.
President Obama briefed other leaders at the summit meeting about the development.
James Dobbins, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was scheduled to leave Washington on Tuesday to visit Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan, focusing primarily on “reconciliation efforts”, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
In Oslo, Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told state broadcaster NRK that Taliban representatives had held secret negotiations in the country over the past several months that had played a significant role in the opening of their office in Qatar.—AP/Reuters
Our Staff Reporter in Islamabad adds: “Pakistan welcomes the announcement of the opening of a Taliban office in Doha for the purpose of bringing peace to Afghanistan and the region. Pakistan also welcomes the start of direct peace talks between the US and the Taliban,” the Foreign Office said.
Pakistan, it said, had long called for “a peaceful and negotiated solution” to the Afghan conflict. “It has repeatedly urged an early end to the war in order to re-establish peace and security in the region.”
Recalling Pakistan’s role in the establishment of office, a statement issued by the Foreign Office said it had “played a constructive and positive role in helping accomplish this important milestone in support of a peace process for Afghanistan”.
It said Pakistan was committed to continuing to facilitate the process for the sake of peace and stability in Afghanistan.