Former militants attend a ceremony in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, during… (Abdul Mueed, European Pressphoto…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — For more than a decade, the U.S. and the Taliban have met almost exclusively on the battlefield of America's longest war. In coming days, both sides said, they will sit down at a negotiating table to discuss ending the bloodshed in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Taliban officials announced separately Tuesday that they would hold their first formal meeting in Doha, Qatar, as early as this week. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai said that he would send a delegation to Doha and that he hoped it would begin talks with the Taliban "as soon as possible."
U.S. officials said the talks would involve the Taliban Political Commission, a newly formed group authorized by fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They said they didn't yet know who was on the commission, but it apparently includes or represents armed insurgent groups that include the Pakistani-based Haqqani network, which has carried out some of the most ambitious attacks on international forces in eastern Afghanistan and in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
"This is an important first step toward reconciliation, although it is a very early step," President Obama said as he wrapped up meetings in Northern Ireland with leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations. "We anticipate that there will be a lot of bumps in the road."
Despite the fact that the U.S. will launch the negotiations with the Taliban, Obama said that the goal was to have an "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process."
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 United States. 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 itself from Al Qaeda, rather than renounce it as U.S. officials have long demanded. 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.
A series of lower-profile contacts in Doha early last year broke down quickly because of disagreements over a possible exchange of Taliban prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by a Taliban faction since 2009. Congress has blocked previous efforts to release Guantanamo prisoners.
Such preliminary issues could quickly scuttle the talks once again.
The announcement of the renewed effort 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, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Karzai celebrated the formal transfer 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 attacks have cast doubt on the ability of Afghan troops to maintain security after NATO combat forces withdraw at the end of 2014. U.S. officials have long hoped that progress toward a negotiated settlement would ease the violence.
The Taliban made it clear in its statement that its fighters remained determined to unseat Karzai's government and to "end the occupation" of NATO troops in the country.
"The Taliban have their own conditions," said Wadir Safi, a Kabul-based independent political analyst. "Don't expect all doors to open in a day or two. It's taken three years to get this far. The Afghan government has spent a long time looking for a place to meet the Taliban. Now they have a place to meet, but it doesn't mean everything will be up for negotiation within the next 24 hours."
He said the Taliban would work with the United Nations and other international groups, and would try to reach an agreement with the U.S. side before it agrees to meet with the High Peace Council, which represents Karzai's government.
In comments Tuesday, Karzai said the talks should be transferred from Qatar to Afghanistan as quickly as possible, they should lead to the cessation of violence, and they shouldn't be a tool for a "third country's" exploitation of Afghanistan. Analysts said that referred to Pakistan.
Some analysts warn that the Taliban might seek to string out the process for the next 18 months as NATO troops withdraw.