ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland -- Calling for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process,” President Obama expressed cautious optimism about the Taliban’s surprise agreement to negotiate directly with U.S. officials toward ending America’s longest war and decades of bloodshed in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Taliban officials announced separately Tuesday that they would hold their first formal meeting in coming days in Doha, Qatar, the site of failed negotiations early last year, although they did not set a date. Afghan officials said they hoped to follow up with their own talks with the Taliban delegation.
U.S. officials said the talks would involve a new group, the Taliban Political Commission, which they said was authorized by fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to open an office in Doha. They said the makeup of the group is unknown, but it apparently includes or represents the Pakistani-based Haqqani network and other armed insurgent groups.
“This is an important first step toward reconciliation, although it is a very early step,” Obama said as he wrapped up meetings here with leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations. “We anticipate that there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”
In a statement, the Taliban said it would satisfy two preconditions set by Western officials. It said it would oppose letting terrorists threaten other countries from “Afghan soil,” as Osama bin Laden did when he launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. It also expressed support for an Afghan peace process and improved relations with the outside world.
A senior U.S. official, briefing reporters in Washington, said it was enough for the Taliban to distance inself from Al Qaeda. The administration “made clear that we didn’t expect immediately for them to break ties with Al Qaeda, because that’s an outcome of the negotiation process.”
Another senior administration official said the talks promised to be “complex, long and messy” and that success was far from assured.
The development came as the U.S. military marked a milestone in its effort to withdraw from Afghanistan, and was reminded of the difficulties ahead.
In a ceremony in Kabul, the Afghan capital, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Afghan President Hamid Karzai celebrated the formal hand-off of security responsibilities from NATO troops to Afghan forces.
An hour before they spoke, a roadside bomb exploded in the Pul-e-Surkh area of west Kabul, killing three civilians. Its target, a prominent politician, survived. The bombing was the fifth high-profile lethal attack in six weeks in the heavily guarded city.
The latest attacks have cast new doubt on the readiness of Afghan troops to maintain security after NATO forces withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014. U.S. officials have long hoped some progress toward a negotiated settlement would help allay such concerns.
The Taliban statement made it clear that its fighters remained determined to unseat Karzai’s government and to “end the occupation” of NATO troops in the country.
Hennessey reported from Enniskillen and Magnier from New Delhi. Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash in Kabul contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun