U.S. officials have said they will sit down with the Taliban "within days" to begin the "first step on a long road" toward ending the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The announcement came as the Taliban opened its first office on June 18 in Doha, Qatar, and announced its willingness to open peace talks with U.S. officials. Negotiations over the opening of the office lasted more than two years.
The development marks the first significant step toward a peace settlement in the 12-year-old armed conflict.
At a press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Barack Obama said he saw Afghan peace talks and negotiations for a post-2014 international presence in Afghanistan as part of a "parallel track."
"Even as we go through some, frankly, difficult negotiations around what it would mean for the international community to have an ongoing training and advising presence after 2014, we still believe that you've got to have a parallel track to at least look at the prospect of some sort of political reconciliation," Obama said. "Whether that bears fruit, whether it actually happens, or whether post 2014 there's going to continue to be fighting, as there was before [NATO's] ISAF forces got into Afghanistan, that's a question that only the Afghans can answer."
Misgivings In Kabul
But in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai responded by saying he had suspended talks with the United States on a deal that would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country after 2014.
Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said Karzai suspended the talks on a Bilateral Security Agreement because "there is a contradiction between what the U.S. government says and what it does regarding Afghanistan peace talks."
Karzai's office did not offer details on the "contradiction" the president cited. But a senior official in Karzai’s administration told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that Karzai was unhappy about how the Taliban were being presented at their newly opened liaison office.
That office -- known as the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- uses the Taliban regime’s official name for Afghanistan before Karzai came to power.
At a ceremony in Kabul on June 18 to mark the U.S. handover of security control to Afghan forces, Karzai had said he planned to send a team to Qatar to "discuss peace talks" with Taliban leaders.
But the Taliban has not agreed to meet with them or even to recognize Karzai’s government.
Washington said the breakthrough for peace talks with the Taliban came when the militants announced they would meet some initial U.S. conditions for starting peace talks.
In a statement, the Taliban said it wanted good ties with neighboring states and backed a political solution in Afghanistan. Earlier, it denounced the use of Afghan soil for "threats to other countries."
U.S. officials called that statement "a first step in distancing the movement from international terrorism" but said they expected the Taliban to eventually sever all ties with Al-Qaeda.
'Long, Hard Process'
In a background briefing call for reporters, a senior administration official said the United States did not expect quick progress in talks between the two sides.
"The core of this process is not going to be the U.S.-Taliban talks -- those can help advance the process -- but the core of it is going to be negotiations among Afghans, and the level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one would expect. So it's going to be a long, hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all," the official said.
The source added that Pakistan "has been particularly helpful in urging the other side -- that is, the Taliban -- to come forward and join in a peace process."
For its part, Pakistan welcomed the opening of an Afghan Taliban office in Qatar and the announcement of peace talks.
The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad said Pakistan "has long called for a peaceful and negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict."
However, Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, said Karzai wanted Washington to put more pressure on Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to stop Taliban attacks against Afghans.
"Pakistan’s intelligence agency and the Pakistani military on a daily basis conduct terrorist attacks via their mercenaries, the Taliban, in our land and kill our innocent people," Faizi said. "This is while the international community, led by the United States, has kept quiet about such obvious interference by Pakistan."
Exchange Of Agendas
U.S. officials said their first meeting with Taliban leaders would not involve substantive issues but would be an exchange of agendas. "We’ll tell them what we want to talk about; they’ll tell us what they want to talk about," one official said.
They said they expected the subject of detainee exchanges to be on the U.S.-Taliban agenda, and cited the case of Sergeant Bowe Robert Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier who was taken prisoner by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in 2009.
Despite the pending launch of peace talks, Taliban fighters continue to carry out bomb and rocket attacks in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for firing rockets late on June 18 into Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, killing four U.S. soldiers.
Mohammad Sohail Shaheen, a Taliban representative at the newly opened political office in Qatar, said that "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" is following both political and military options.
"There is no cease-fire now. They are attacking us and we are attacking them," he said. "So the attacking will continue in parallel with the peace talks."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said on June 19 that despite the Taliban’s willingness to join peace talks, Taliban fighters were prepared to eliminate "havens of an American presence" in Afghanistan.
*CORRECTION: This story has been changed to reflect that the Taliban has announced its willingness to open peace talks with U.S. officials but not yet with the Afghan government.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and "The New York Times"