KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban announced on Tuesday that they were prepared to take the first step toward peace negotiations with the Afghan government after 12 years of war, and American officials said that they would meet with Taliban representatives in Qatar within the week to start the process.
If talks begin, it will be the first time that the antagonists in the Afghanistan war have undertaken negotiations to end the conflict, begun in 2001 when American forces entered the country to rout Al Qaeda. Efforts to get such talks started have long been stalled, hijacked by conflicting demands from the main parties with long-term goals in Afghanistan: the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, the exiled Taliban leadership, the United States and Pakistan.
In a televised speech announcing the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, the capital of Qatar, Mohammed Naim, a Taliban spokesman, said that their political and military goals “are limited to Afghanistan” and that they did not wish to “harm other countries.”
Senior Obama administration officials in Washington said the Taliban statement contained two crucial pledges: that the insurgents believed that Afghan soil should not be used to threaten other countries — an indirect reference to Al Qaeda’s sheltering in Afghanistan with the Taliban regime’s blessing before the Sept. 11 attacks — and that they were committed to finding a peaceful solution to the war.
“Together, they fulfill the requirement for the Taliban to open a political office in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government,” a senior administration official said.
American officials had long insisted that the Taliban make both pledges before talks start. The first element, in particular, is vital — it represents the beginning of what is hoped will be the Taliban’s eventual public break with Al Qaeda, the officials said. The ultimate goal of such talks, from a Western and Afghan government point of view, would be to persuade the Taliban to disarm and accept the Afghan Constitution. But officials warned that many hurdles remained in what was sure to be a long process.
President Obama called the Taliban’s announcement “an important first step towards reconciliation.”
But “it is a very early step,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with President François Hollande of France at a Group of 8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. “We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”
In the next step, United States officials said, American envoys will meet later this week with Taliban representatives in Qatar. Members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is to represent the government in talks, will then sit down with the insurgents.
But the first meetings will probably feature little more than an exchange of agendas, another senior administration official said, cautioning against expectations for the talks to yield substantive results any time soon. Indeed, one major obstacle for the peace process has been the outright refusal of Taliban negotiators to talk directly with Mr. Karzai’s administration.
“There is no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all,” the official said.
President Karzai referred to the impending opening of the office earlier in comments at a ceremony celebrating the transfer of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces from the American-led multinational forces in Afghanistan.
While he signaled his acceptance of the office’s opening, Mr. Karzai has repeatedly said that the talks must be Afghan-led, implying that the neither the United States nor the Pakistanis should be interlocutors. And he wants the talks held in Afghanistan.
Both demands are difficult to meet. Realistically both Pakistan and the United States have to be guarantors of any peace effort. Ultimately it is the United States that has bargaining chips — the Taliban prisoners that it holds at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — that might help bring the Taliban to the table. And Pakistan, as the home of most of the Taliban leadership and as the place where they have been able to receive funding and training for the fight, would have to play a role in encouraging the Taliban and backing their participation in a peace plan.
As for relocating the peace talks in Kabul, the Taliban are opposed to that because they feel they would be at an immediate disadvantage on the turf of their opponents, the Afghan government.
“The president should not use the term ‘immediately’ or ‘as soon as possible’ in talking about moving the peace negotiations to Afghanistan,” said Sayed Agha Akbar, a onetime Taliban commander now living in Kabul.
“Using such inflammatory words would be a serious blow to the peace talks at the moment when they are about to start.”
The Taliban statement on Monday said that in addition to initial negotiations, the Doha office would be used to explain the group’s views to other countries, and to meet with representatives of the United Nations and with regional, international and nongovernmental organizations. The Taliban also said they planned to give media statements about the current political situation.
Mr. Karzai’s concern is that the Taliban will use the office as a forum to try to re-establish their political legitimacy, especially in international circles, rather than confining the office to peace talks.
“Peace is the desire of the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said at a Kabul news conference after the transfer ceremony. “Peace is a hope that the people of Afghanistan make sacrifices for every day.”
Talks between the United States and the Taliban “can help advance the process, but the core of it is going to be negotiations among Afghans and the level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one would expect,” the second senior Obama administration official said. “So it is going to be a long, hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all.”