WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials will meet with the Taliban on Thursday in a major breakthrough aimed at opening peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, as the U.S. prepares for the end of its combat involvement.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday called the talks and the Islamic movements opening of an office in Doha, Qatar, to host the talks an important first step toward reconciliation, even as he cautioned that there will be a lot of bumps in the road.
After nearly 12 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, the administration is pinning much of its hopes on a political settlement to the war as it moves ahead with plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops by the close of 2014. The announcement came as the U.S. marked the handover of security from U.S.-led NATO forces to Afghanistan forces.
We dont anticipate this process will be easy or quick, but we must pursue in parallel with our military approach, Obama said.
The peace process was already in disarray within 24 hours when Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his government would suspend talks with the U.S. on a security agreement, saying the U.S. was deceptive in its approach to the talks. Karzai also said he would not send a representative to the U.S.-Taliban talks; Just before the Taliban office opened Tuesday, Karzai said he planned to send members of his High Peace Council to Qatar to speak for Afghanistan.
Obama downplayed the latest glitch at a press conference in Germany, saying the U.S. had anticipated "some areas of friction, to put it mildly."
He said Karzai recognizes the need for the talks, but acknowledged it's difficult for a country still at war. "Our hope and expectation is despite the challenges, the process will proceed," he said. He noted that Afghanis and NATO service members still dying. "They've been fighting a very long time, there is enormous mistrust," Obama said.
But, he said that even as the parties pursue "some frankly difficult negotiations" on the US role, post 2014, "we still believe you have got to have a paralell track to at least look at the prospect for peace. Whether that bears fruit post 2014, are they going to be fighting? That's a question only the Afghans can answer."
Administration officials noted Obama had personally talked with Karzai and the emir of Qatar to push plans for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process.
Obama briefed leaders at a summit of the worlds largest economies in Northern Ireland on the developments, and administration officials said there was significant international support for a reconciliation process even with all the attendant difficulties.
Even as leaders hailed talk of ending the violence, there were signs of continuing friction: Karzai said members of the Afghan High Peace Council would travel to Qatar to meet with the Taliban but said the discussions should quickly be moved onto Afghan soil. The Taliban, in a statement posted on its website, said it would have meetings with Afghan officials in due appropriate time.
Karzais peace council members have been targets for the insurgents, as one apparently was when a bomb exploded in western Kabul Tuesday morning as his convoy passed, a sharp counterpoint to all the talk of ending the violence.
Peace Council and Parliament member Mohammad Mohaqiq escaped the blast unhurt, but three civilians were killed and 30 people were wounded, including some of Mohaqiqs bodyguards.