US to join direct peace talks with Taliban over Afghanistan

Dan Roberts, Spencer Ackerman in Washington, Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul — Guardian.co.uk June 18, 2013

The US is to open direct talks with Taliban leaders within days, it was revealed on Tuesday, after Washington agreed to drop a series of preconditions that have previously held back negotiations over the future of Afghanistan.

In a major milestone in the 12-year-old war, political representatives of the Taliban will shortly meet Afghan and US officials in Doha, the capital of Qatar, to discuss an agenda for what US officials called “peace and reconciliation” before further talks take place with Afghan government representatives soon after.

Senior US administration officials speaking on background said they believed the Taliban had agreed to issue a statement committing itself to “oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries” – an important first step to severing ties with al-Qaida, according to Washington. The Taliban confirmed they were opening an office in Doha, and wanted “good relations” with other countries.

The US has agreed that a formal rejection of al-Qaida by the Taliban leadership would now be a “negotiating aim” rather than a precondition for talks. It will also seek a commitment from the Taliban to end its insurgency in Afghanistan and recognise women’s rights in the country.

“This is an important first step but it will be a long road,” said one senior US official. “We have long said this conflict won’t be won on the battlefield, which is why we support the opening of this [Doha] office.”

White House officials say they believe the Taliban delegation at the talks represents the movement’s leadership, and includes more radical groups such as the Haqqani network. Officials said the US would have a direct role in the talks starting starting this week in Doha, but the substantive negotiations over the future of Afghanistan would then be led by the Afghan government.

“The core of this process is not going to be US-Taliban talks – we can help the process – but the core is going to be among Afghans,” added the US official. “The level of trust is extremely low so this is not going to be easy.”

A Taliban spokesman said the group was opening the Doha office to “reach understanding and initiate talks with countries of the world for the purpose of improving relations with them”, and to support a peaceful, political solution to end the “occupation of Afghanistan”.

The proposal for a Doha office has been on the table since 2011, and several senior Taliban figures have been living in Qatar for many months now, but the group had not publicly embraced plans for peace talks.

In Kabul, Afghan president Hamid Karzai said a delegation from the High Peace Council would travel to Qatar to discuss peace talks with the Taliban. “We hope that our brothers the Taliban also understand that the process will move to our country soon,” he added, although US officials stressed that moving talks to Afghanistan would take time.

Karzai also announced that Afghan forces would begin taking the lead from the Americans on domestic security on Tuesday, with a complete security transition by the end of next year when US forces are due to pull out.

Barack Obama is understood to have informed G8 leaders of the breakthrough at a dinner at the Northern Ireland summit on Monday night.

The deal on talks with the Taliban was partly brokered by Pakistan and the emir of Qatar after “months of diplomatic spadework” also involving Germany, Norway and the UK. In 2011, Hillary Clinton suggested that Taliban leaders would have to renounce violence for a peace process to work.

“Over the past two years, we have laid out our unambiguous red lines for reconciliation with the insurgents: they must renounce violence; they must abandon their alliance with al-Qaida; and they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan,” she said. “Those are necessary outcomes of any negotiation. This is the price for reaching a political resolution and bringing an end to the military actions that are targeting their leadership and decimating their ranks.”

But on Tuesday, that position appeared to have soften somewhat. “We don’t expect them to break ties with al-Qaida [immediately],” said one of the US officials speaking on an off-the-record conference call. “That is an outcome of the process.” He said the expected Taliban statement opposing the use of Afghan soil for foreign attacks was “a first step in distancing them from international terrorism”.

The news comes on the day Nato handed formal responsibility for Afghan security to the country’s own troops and police, although foreign soldiers are still fighting in many areas. The Taliban have long demanded that foreign troops leave as a precondition to talks.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has always said he would prefer talks to take place in Afghanistan, was initially lukewarm about the Qatar plans, but has visited the state twice this year, apparently paving the way for today’s breakthrough.

Additional reporting by Mokhtar Amiri in Kabul

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