In a statement read live on television in Doha, the Qatari capital, a Taliban spokesman said that the militant group “never wants to pose harm to other countries from its soil” and that it was open to talking with other Afghans. Those pledges met U.S. conditions for opening a Taliban political office in Qatar.
President Obama called the agreement “a very early step,” describing it as a parallel process to “the transition that is taking place militarily in Afghanistan” as the U.S.-led international coalition hands over security control to the Afghan military and prepares to withdraw all combat troops by the end of next year.
“We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road,” Obama said in remarks at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.
The U.S. delegation to the Taliban talks will be led by Douglas Lute, Obama’s chief adviser on Afghanistan, and James Dobbins, the State Department’s new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive dialogue, expect the Taliban delegation to be led by Mohammed Tayeb al-Agha, a senior aide to Pakistan-based group leader Mohammad Omar, and representatives of the Taliban’s political council.
Far apart on final goals
For the moment, the opening of the office and the start of formal U.S.-Taliban talks appeared more symbolic than substantive, and the two sides remain far apart on their final objectives.
The U.S. goal is for the Taliban to publicly and substantively renounce ties with al-Qaeda, end violence in Afghanistan, recognize the Afghan constitution — including rights for minorities and women — and participate in the democratic process there.
The Taliban has demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan — including any residual forces the United States and NATO plan to leave after the 2014 withdrawal — and the release of all Taliban detainees. The detainees include five militants being held at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, whose release the Taliban has previously sought. The United States has turned over the bulk of its battlefield prisoners in Afghanistan to the Karzai government.
Under a tentative agreement reached in late 2011 before informal talks were abandoned, the United States had agreed to transfer the five Afghan Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo to supervised custody in Qatar in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. service member being held by the militants.