WASHINGTON, June 18: The United States has dropped some of its preconditions for engaging the Taliban and is now willing to hold direct talks with the militants, senior Obama administration officials said on Tuesday.
The Taliban too have agreed to support the Afghan peace process and the talks can now be held within days, officials said.
The White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, however, told reporters that he could not yet give a date for the talks.
It could be a “matter of days” when US talks to Taliban, he added, pointing out that US officials would also discuss the release of an American soldier now in Taliban’s custody.
“The United States will be supporting a process that is fundamentally Afghan-led,” he said. “We can play a role in talking to the Taliban as well in supporting that peace process and because we have issues of our own to bring up with them.”
Earlier Tuesday, senior Obama administration officials told a briefing in Washington the Taliban delegation at the talks that led to this breakthrough represented the movement's core leadership and included the Haqqani network as well.
The officials said the Taliban also have vowed not to allow their soil to be used for threatening other countries.
“I think the US will have its first formal meeting with the Taliban, and the first meeting with the Taliban for several years, in a couple of days in Doha,” said one US official.
Political representatives of the Taliban will shortly meet Afghan and US officials in Doha to discuss an agenda for “peace and reconciliation” before further talks with the Afghan government later this week, said another official.
“The Taliban will release a statement that says two things: First, that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries; and second, that they support an Afghan peace process,” the official said.
“These are two statements which we've long called for and together, they fulfil the requirements for the Taliban to open an office, a political office, in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government.”
Another US official said the Taliban and other insurgent groups were now required to meet three end conditions: Break ties with Al Qaeda; end the violence; and accept Afghanistan’s constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.
The United States, however, agreed that a formal rejection of Al Qaeda by the Taliban leadership would now be a “negotiating aim” rather than a precondition for talks.
“One of the things we want to talk about from the beginning is how they're going to cut ties with Al Qaeda, how quickly, exactly how they're going to do it, so that means that will be one item,” said a senior US official.
“We have made clear that we didn't expect immediately for them to break ties with Al Qaeda, because that's an outcome of the negotiation process,” said the second official.
One official pointed out that the United States had “long said this conflict won't be won on the battlefield, which is why we support the opening of this office.”
That’s why it was important for the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin direct negotiations soon, he added.
The US media quoted Taliban officials as saying that their office in Doha would help them reach out to other nations “for the purpose of improving relations with them”, and to support a peaceful, political solution to end the “occupation of Afghanistan”.
One of the US officials who briefed journalists at the White House has personally been involved in working through this process with President Hamid Karzai.
“This was a key topic of discussion in January when President Karzai visited the White House and it’s something that President Obama has spoken to President Karzai about in each of their interactions since then, on the phone and on videoconference,” one US official said.
President Obama has also been involved with the Amir of Qatar in discussions about the support that they could provide to this reconciliation process, and it was a key topic of discussion when the Amir visited Washington earlier this spring.