WASHINGTON/KABUL: The United States will meet the Taliban in Doha in the coming days for talks aimed at achieving peace in Afghanistan, where the United States has battled the insurgents for 12 years, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
The Taliban said it wanted a political solution that would bring about a just government and end foreign occupation of Afghanistan, and it opened an office in Doha, the Qatari capital, to help restart talks.
U.S. officials cautioned against expectations of quick progress, saying the peace process could take many years and be subject to reversals.
The United States will insist the Taliban break ties with al Qaeda, end violence, and accept the Afghan constitution, including protection for women and minorities, the U.S. officials told reporters in a conference call.
"I think the U.S. will have its first formal meeting with the Taliban, and indeed first meeting with the Taliban for several years, in a couple of days in Doha," a senior U.S. official said.
He said he expected that would be followed within days with a meeting between the Taliban and the High Peace Council, a structure set up by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to represent Afghanistan in such talks. The U.S. officials were speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials said the level of trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban was low, and played down expectations that the talks would quickly lead to peace. "This is but the first step in what will be a long road," one said, adding: "Peace is not at hand."
The announcement of the planned talks nevertheless represents a significant step forward in the peace process, which has struggled to achieve results despite years of attempts.
A team of envoys from the Taliban flew to Qatar in early 2012 to open talks with the U.S. government. But the Taliban suspended the talks in March 2012, saying Washington was giving mixed signals on the nascent Afghan reconciliation process.
U.S. officials said the goal was to ensure that Afghanistan does not remain a haven for terrorism and to defeat Al Qaeda.
The talks will be conducted on the Taliban side by its political commission, with the authorization of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, a U.S. official said. The commission would also represent the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, which is considered the United States' deadliest foe in Afghanistan.
Officials said they expected detainee exchanges to be discussed. The United States will ask for the safe return of U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been a prisoner since June 2009, the officials said. He is thought to be being held by Taliban militants in northwestern Pakistan.
The first U.S.-Taliban meeting is expected to be an exchange of agenda, followed by another meeting a week or two later to discuss next steps, the U.S. officials said.
The planned talks follow discussions between U.S. President Barack Obama and Karzai in January, officials added.
Karzai, speaking on Tuesday as the U.S.-led NATO coalition launched a final phase of security transfers to Afghan forces, said his government would send a team to Qatar.
"We hope that our brothers the Taliban also understand that the process will move to our country soon," Karzai said of the fundamentalist Islamic group that ruled the country with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001.