The U.S. will have its first formal meeting with the Taliban in more than a year over the next couple of days in Doha, which will be followed by a Taliban meeting with the Afghan High Peace Council, the White House announced Tuesday.
The news of the coming U.S.-Taliban meetings followed an announcement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the peace process will be led by the Afghan government—and will move to Afghanistan following an undetermined number of initial rounds of talks to be held in Doha, the capital of the Gulf island nation of Qatar, near Saudi Arabia, where the Taliban has a representative office.
“We feel that a political process is an important part of how we end this war, so today is an important first step in that process, but it is by no means the end of that process,” a senior administration official told reporters in a Tuesday morning conference call with reporters.
The U.S. side of the negotiations is likely to be led by James Dobbins, the State Department’s new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who took the job last month following the resignation of Marc Grossman. Grossman replaced Richard Holbrooke, who died in December 2010.
But the U.S. officials emphasized that the new peace talks will be primarily between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership and officials sought to manage the expectations of the international community.
“This is an Afghan initiative and this is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” another senior administration official said. “We need to be realistic. This is a new development, potentially a significant development, but peace is not at hand.”
U.S. officials said the progress of the talks and the announcement that the Taliban will formally open their office in Doha, which has been open informally for years, could lead to a diminution of violence in Afghanistan that could influence how quickly U.S. forces withdraw from the country ahead of the full transition to Afghan security control at the end of 2014.
The officials warned that the coming U.S.-Taliban and subsequent Afghan government–Taliban talks will be initial steps in what could be a protracted process of negotiations that might or might not ever yield a peace agreement.
“The first meeting is just likely to be an exchange of agendas rather than a substantive discussion. We’ll then have another meeting a week or two later,” one official said. “In the interim we will be continuing our military effort in Afghanistan, both inside Afghanistan and against al Qaeda as well.”
U.S. officials and Taliban officials held a series of secret meetings in 2011 and 2012 in Doha and Berlin that ultimately failed to produce any result. Those meetings were focused on confidence-building measures, including the proposed trade of five senior Taliban commanders currently held in the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the one U.S. serviceman in Taliban custody, Bowe Bergdahl.
U.S. officials said today the Bergdahl trade was back on the table.
“We do want Bowe Bergdahl back. I would expect that detainee exchanges would be an item on the U.S. side of the agenda,” one official said.
The U.S.-Taliban talks have been in the works for months, said the officials, who added that Pakistan’s government has been generally supportive of the peace process in Afghanistan and that it used its influence to encourage the Taliban to engage in the process.
All conflicts end with diplomatic solutions, one of the officials said, but an all-out peace deal is not likely any time soon.
“It’s not going to be possible in the near future, but it’s something we want to get to eventually,” the official said.
As the talks were being announced, violence in Afghanistan continued with a bombing in Kabul that targeted a senior member of the High Peace Council, Mohammad Mohaqiq. In September 2011, the last round of Afghan-Taliban peace talks ended when a suicide bomber killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the previous head of the High Peace Council, near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.