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US, Taliban to launch talks

Hope for end of violence, unity with Afghans

– After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, and nearly three years of sputtering and unsuccessful attempts at talks, the United States will open formal negotiations with the Taliban this week aimed at ending insurgent attacks, officials said Tuesday.

The new dialogue, with a Taliban delegation that U.S. officials said has been authorized by Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, will begin Thursday in Doha, the Qatari capital. The United States will be represented by senior State Department and White House officials.

The Obama administration has long sought to put in place a process for political negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government before the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Senior administration officials called the agreement to open a Taliban political office in Doha a “milestone” on the road to ending the bloody and long-running conflict.

But the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of a public announcement, cautioned that they did not expect immediate results from the negotiations.

“It’s an important first step toward reconciliation … that promises to be complex, long and messy. But nonetheless an important first step,” one senior official said.

Aiming for peace

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government will not participate in the initial U.S. talks. But U.S. officials said they had persuaded him that the U.S. meetings would be a first stage that ultimately would lead to direct Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations. That process of persuasion began when President Barack Obama met with Karzai early this year, they said.

The officials said that while they expected to maintain separate U.S.-Taliban dialogue on an agenda that includes the end of violence and release of detainees, the main peace negotiations, and talks about integrating the Taliban into Afghan democracy, would be turned over to the Afghans at the earliest opportunity. Karzai has invited the Taliban to participate in next year’s Afghan elections.

Until now, the Taliban has refused to talk to the Karzai government. But in a statement issued Tuesday, the militants said that “to hold meetings with Afghans as times may demand” was one of their objectives for the office. The statement was issued on the Twitter account of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and was later read by a Taliban representative at a press event in Doha.

Obama, at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland, praised Karzai and said “an Afghan-led, an Afghan-owned, peace process is the best way to end the violence.” He called the talks “a parallel political process that match up with the transition that is taking place militarily in Afghanistan and before the elections that are coming up next year.”

“It is a very early step,” Obama said of the establishment of the Taliban office. “We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”

In a Tuesday news conference in Kabul, Karzai said he had no “preconditions for talks” but had 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,” Karzai 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.

“We have a very in-depth dialogue with the United States of America on the peace process,” said Karzai, who was speaking at a heavily guarded ceremony at an Afghan military training camp on the outskirts of Kabul to mark the transfer of primary security responsibilities throughout Afghanistan to the Afghan military.

US urges agreement

The handoff ceremony set the stage for the departure of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014, Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

U.S. officials said that coalition forces would continue to provide support functions for Afghan troops until the withdrawal, but that the Afghans would have primary responsibility for the security in all of the country’s provinces.

The resumption of talks with the Taliban comes as the insurgent group has launched a series of major attacks on urban areas in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have described the attacks as desperation moves.

A series of earlier meetings with Taliban representatives ended in January 2012, after the militants accused the United States of bad faith and walked out of informal talks in Doha. Since then, there have been no face-to-face conversations.

Officials said they expected that initial conversations would be limited to outlining the agendas on both sides, which remain far apart. For the United States, the ultimate goal is for the Taliban to break all ties with al-Qaida, 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 a residual force the United States and NATO plan to leave there after the 2014 combat withdrawal – and the release of all Taliban detainees. Those detainees include about 60 prisoners the United States still holds in Afghanistan and five militants being held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The United States has turned the bulk of its battlefield prisoners in Afghanistan over to the Afghan government.

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