The White House on Tuesday announced two milestones on the long path to peace in Afghanistan: negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban will begin soon in Qatar, and Afghan security forces have taken the lead role in securing the country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai will send representatives to Qatar in the coming days to discuss a cease-fire, and the Taliban have opened a political office in the Qatari capital of Doha to help facilitate negotiations, senior Obama administration officials said.
Later Tuesday, the Taliban plans to release a ground-breaking statement that it opposes the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries and that it supports the Afghan constitution.
While U.S. officials don’t expect the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda immediately, they view the assertion as an important first step in a long process while cautioning that there is no guarantee that the talks will lead to either side laying down their arms.
“It’s clear that this is but the first step, and if it’s successful it will be a very long road,” one administration official said. “Many insurgencies end in a negotiated peace, but there is no guarantee that this will happen quickly – if at all. The core of this is going to be negotiations among Afghans, and the level of trust between them is extremely low.”
Obama administration officials made the announcement from the Group of Eight summit of leaders from industrialized countries being held Tuesday in Northern Ireland. They credited leaders in Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, Qatar and Pakistan as instrumental in the plans and discussions that preceded the announcement.
While the U.S. will be involved in the Doha talks, the crux of the negotiations will take place between the Karzai-led Afghan government and Taliban leaders, officials stressed.
One main U.S. priority is the return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held captive by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network since June 2009. In return for Bergdahl’s release, the Taliban are likely to demand the repatriation of several detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility — a discussion item that an administration official stressed the U.S. has in no way agreed to yet.
“We do want to get our sergeant back — he has been gone for four years now,” the official said.
The timing of the handover of security from an international military coalition to Afghan forces, which took place in a ceremony in Kabul earlier Tuesday, was planned at last year’s G-8 summit in Chicago. U.S. forces will remain in a supporting role, and the exact number of troops that will stay on after the official end of the war in December 2014 will be a key element of the Doha talks.