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U.S., Taliban to formally talk peace

| Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 6:51 p.m.

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 terror attacks, officials said on Tuesday.

The dialogue, with a Taliban delegation that U.S. officials said has been authorized by Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, will begin Thursday in Doha, the capital of Qatar. 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 before a public announcement, cautioned that they do not expect immediate results from the negotiations.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government will not participate in the initial U.S. talks. But U.S. officials said they had convinced him that the U.S. meetings will be a first stage that would lead to direct Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations. That process of persuasion began when President 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 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.”

During a 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.

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 occurs as the terror group has begun a series of major attacks on urban areas in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have described the attacks as desperation moves.

The Taliban political leadership is based in Pakistan, which maintains tight control on its movement. U.S. officials said they believed that Pakistan had been instrumental in both allowing, and pushing, Omar to resume the discussion.

The administration demanded that the Taliban issue two statements before talks could resume, opposing international terrorism rooted in Afghan soil and supporting the peace process.

In addition to agreeing to meet with Afghans, the statement issued by Mujahid said “the Islamic Emirate does not want to inflict harm to other countries from its soil” and wants “good relations” with all countries.

It said Taliban objectives for the office included “to support a political and peaceful solution.”

A U.S. official said the statement fulfilled the requirements.

The Taliban repeated its demand for an end to the foreign “occupation” of Afghanistan and its goal of establishing “an independent Islamic system” there.

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