The Obama administration will start formal peace talks with the Taliban on Thursday in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the first direct political contact between them since early last year and the initial step in what the administration hopes will lead to a negotiated end to the protracted war in Afghanistan.
Afghan government representatives are not expected to attend the meeting. But U.S. officials said the United States wants to eventually hand over the process to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his appointed peace council.
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.
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.
Bergdahl, captured in 2009, is thought to be in Pakistan under the control of the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction. Officials said they hope to return eventually to discussions over the prisoner exchange.
It was unclear why the Taliban accepted an agreement to open the Doha office that was essentially identical to one that the United States offered during the talks that ended abruptly in January 2012, when the militants walked away.
“There’s a question about that, and nobody has really answered it,” said a U.S. official, who suggested that Pakistan started to apply pressure on the Taliban after Secretary of State John F. Kerry brought Karzai and the head of Pakistan’s armed forces, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, together in Brussels in April.
On Tuesday, Pakistan’s newly elected government issued a statement welcoming the opening of the Doha office and “the start of direct peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.”
Karzai, who had long refused to sanction peace talks that were not led by his government, was persuaded in recent weeks to go along with the new plan. U.S. officials said they assured him that he would be briefed regularly and that no decisions would be made without his approval.
The officials said substantive negotiations on a long-term peace process would be turned over to the Afghans at the earliest opportunity.
“Ultimately, this is something that Afghans have to work out with each other,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One from Northern Ireland to Germany, Obama’s next stop. “We have our own issues to discuss with them,” Rhodes said, including Bergdahl.
Karzai, who has invited the Taliban to participate in Afghanistan’s elections next year, said at a news conference in Kabul that he laid down a set of “principles” in letters sent to Qatar and the United States.
“The conditions are: The talks, having begun in Qatar, must immediately move to Afghanistan,” he said. “Second, the talks must bring about an end of the violence in Afghanistan, and third, the talks should not become a tool for any third-party country” to pursue its own interests in Afghanistan.
Karzai spoke at a heavily guarded ceremony at an Afghan military training camp on the outskirts of Kabul. The ceremony marked the transfer of primary security responsibilities across the country to the Afghan military.
U.S. officials said that coalition forces will continue to perform support functions for Afghan troops until the withdrawal but that the Afghans will have primary responsibility for security in all of the country’s provinces.
After the breakdown of the informal talks early last year, the Taliban did not respond to indirect U.S. overtures. But on May 20, an official said, the United States received word of Taliban interest from the Qatari government.
A U.S. team was sent to Doha, and it passed messages to Agha and other Taliban representatives through the Qataris over the past three weeks.
In Afghanistan, the announcement of a Taliban political office in Qatar was nervously welcomed. Ahmad Shuja, an Afghan research associate at Human Rights Watch in Kabul, said his organization welcomes any step toward peace talks but fears that the Qatar office could give the Taliban movement more legitimacy.
“We have genuine fear some of the hard-fought gains for women and minority rights would be at stake,” he said. “We don’t feel the Taliban have made any change on their position on these issues in the last 10 years, especially on women’s rights.”
Tim Craig and Ernesto Londoño in Kabul and Scott Wilson in Northern Ireland contributed to this report.