The United States will meet with the Taliban to begin talks aimed at brokering peace after 12 years of fighting in Afghanistan, officials say.
Representatives from the US and the Taliban are expected to meet in Doha “in the next couple of days” to begin the process.
The Taliban issued a statement on Tuesday opposing the use of Afghan soil for attacks on other countries. The statement, from spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, also said the Taliban support the Afghan peace process.
This is but the first step in what will be a long road. US official
Both issues formed part of demands from the US and Afghan governments before peace talks could begin.
Mr Mujahid said that the Taliban are willing to use all legal means to end what they call the occupation of Afghanistan, and said an office would be opened in Doha in order to conduct the peace talks. He also thanked the leader of Qatar for allowing them to open the office.
Barack Obama praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for taking a courageous step toward peace. He said the peace process would need to be Afghanistan led.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (video, above) also welcomed the talks. Speaking from the G8 summit in Fermanagh, he said: “I have long argued that we need to match the security response in Afghanistan… with a political process to try and make sure that as many people as possible give up violence and give up armed struggle and join the political process.
“That is exactly what I hope can happen with elements of the Taliban. That is the point of the Taliban office in Qatar. That is the point of the discussions that the Americans will have.”
US officials told reporters in a conference call that America will insist the Taliban break ties with al-Qaeda, end its violence, and accept the Afghan constitution – which includes protection for women and minorities.
However, one US official, speaking on a condition of anonymity, warned that the process is likely to take a long time. “This is but the first step in what will be a long road,” the official said.
A senior Afghan official said: “We hope that the attacks carried out by the Taliban in Afghanistan will reduce while we talk peace; there is no point in talking if the bombs continue to kill civilians.”
General Joseph Dunford, commander of international forces in Afghanistan (video, above), said: “My prospective 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 Afghan-owned process that would bring reconciliation between the Afghan people and the Taliban in the context of the Afghan constitution.”
The first formal meeting between the US and the Taliban, expected next week, is likely to be an exchange of agenda. The Afhgan government and the Taliban are expected to meet a few days later.
Officials said they expect detainee releases to be high on the agenda, with the US seeking the return of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl – a Taliban prisoner since 2009 who is believed to be being held by militants in northwestern Pakistan.
The talks will be conducted on the Taliban side by its political commission, with the authorisation of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, a US official said. The commission would also represent the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, which is considered the United States’ deadliest foe in Afghanistan.
The announcement came as Nato handed Afghanistan’s security over to Afghan forces, paving the way for a withdrawal of US troops within 18 months.
The handover was marred by a car bomb attack in Kabul in which three people were killed and dozens injured.