In a major breakthrough, the Taliban and the U.S. announced Tuesday that they will hold formal talks on finding a political solution to ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan but President Barack Obama warned the process won't be quick or easy.
The comments came on a day in which Afghan forces took the lead from the U.S.-led NATO coalition for security nationwide, marking a turning point for American and NATO military forces, which will now move entirely into a supporting role. It also opened the way for the full withdrawal of most foreign troops in 18 months
After months of delays, the Taliban opened a political office in the Qatari capital of Doha, paving the way for talks to begin. The decision was a reversal of months of failed efforts to start peace talks while Taliban militants intensified a campaign targeting urban centers and government installations.
In Doha, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naim said the group opposes the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries and supports the negotiating process, two key demands of both the U.S. and Afghan governments before talks could begin. He made the statement shortly after the deputy foreign minister of Qatar said the Emir of the gulf state had given the go ahead for the office to open.
Naim said the Taliban are willing to use all legal means to end what they called the occupation of Afghanistan.
He thanked the leader of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani for allowing them to open the office.
Obama administration officials said U.S. representatives will begin bilateral meetings with the Taliban at the office in a few days, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council is expected to follow up with its own talks a few days later.
Obama later called the opening of the Taliban political office an important first step toward reconciliation between the Taliban and Afghanistan's government, although he said the Taliban still must denounce al-Qaida and predicted there will be bumps along the way.
Obama, who spoke after meeting with French President Francois Hollande at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, also praised Karzai for taking a courageous step by sending representatives to Qatar to discuss peace with the Taliban.
The administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, vowed to continue to push the Taliban further and said that ultimately the Taliban must also break ties with al Qaida, end violence and accept Afghanistan's constitution — including protections for women and minorities. Officials said that Obama was personally involved in working with Karzai to enable the opening of the office, and that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had also played a major role.
The U.S. officials said the first meeting in Doha will focus on an exchange of agendas and consultations on next steps.
The Taliban have for years refused to speak to the Afghan government or the Peace Council, set up by Karzai three years ago, because they considered them to be American "puppets." Taliban representatives have instead talked to American and other Western officials in Doha and other places, mostly in Europe.
Karzai also said he will soon send representatives from the High Peace Council to Qatar for talks but expressed hope the process would quickly move to Afghanistan — something U.S. officials said was unlikely.
"We are hopeful that after starting negotiations in Qatar, immediately the negotiations and all the peace process should move into Afghanistan. Afghanistan shouldn't be center of the discussions outside of the country," Karzai said.
"We don't have any immediate preconditions for talks between the Afghan peace council and the Taliban, but we have principles laid down," Karzai said, adding that they include bringing an end to violence and the movement of talks to Afghanistan so they are not exploited by other countries.
The U.S. and its Western allies are trying to foster a peace process as foreign troops prepare to end their combat mission by the end of 2014.
The U.S.-led NATO coalition formally handed over responsibility for nationwide security to Afghan security forces earlier Tuesday, with foreign troops moving entirely into a supporting role. The transition comes at a time when violence is at levels matching the worst in 12 years, fueling some Afghans' concerns that their forces aren't ready.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the only way to end the war was through a political solution.
"My perspective has always been that this war is going to have to end with political reconciliation and so I frankly would be supportive of any positive movement in terms of reconciliation particularly an Afghan led and an Afghan owned process that would bring reconciliation between the afghan people and the Taliban in the context of the Afghan constitution," he said as reports were breaking that the Taliban were about to open an office.
For U.S. and other foreign combat troops on the ground, the transition means they will not be directly carrying the fight to the insurgency, but will provide training and mentoring, and back up as needed with air support and medical evacuations.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the coalition will help militarily if and when needed but will no longer plan, execute or lead operations.
"This is a historic moment for our country and from tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces," Karzai said at the ceremony, held at the new National Defense University built to train Afghanistan's future military officers.
Karzai said that in the coming months, coalition forces will gradually withdraw from Afghanistan's provinces as the country's security forces replace them.
In announcing the fifth and final phase of a process that began at a November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Karzai said "transition will be completed and Afghan security forces will lead and conduct all operations."
Alliance training since 2009 dramatically increased the size of the Afghan National Security Forces, bringing them up from 40,000 men and women six years ago to about 352,000 today.
Afghans will now have the lead for security in all 403 districts of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Until now, they were responsible for 312 districts nationwide, where 80 percent of Afghanistan's population of nearly 30 million lives. Afghan security forces were until now carrying out 90 percent of military operations around the country.
By the end of the year, the NATO force of 100,000 troops from 48 countries will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will be replaced, if approved by the Afghan government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise.
There are currently about 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Obama has not yet said how many soldiers he will leave in Afghanistan along with NATO forces, but it is thought that it would be about 9,000 U.S. troops and about 6,000 from its allies.