After more than a decade of war, the Taliban will be opening a political office in Doha, Qatar, this week in preparation for reconciliation talks with the United States and the government of Afghanistan, the White House announced Tuesday morning.
Senior administration officials, speaking on background, praised the move as a major step in the peace process, but they also batted away any high hopes that the talks will mark an end to fighting – opting instead to keep expectations low.
“I wouldn’t be looking for early results,” said a senior administration official. “The level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one might expect,” he added.
“It’s going to be a long, hard process – if indeed it advances significantly at all.”
The US will “facilitate and encourage” the talks, but senior administration officials also emphasized that “this is a negotiation that will have to be led by the Afghans.”
Senior administration officials also praised Pakistan as being “particularly helpful in urging the other side – that is, the Taliban – to come to the peace process.”
The opening of the Taliban office in Doha has been the result of “months and months” of negotiations with a handful of “core players,” including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, and the US.
President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai discussed the opening of the office extensively during Mr. Karzai’s visit to Washington this past January, a senior administration official adds. Such an office has also been talked about prior to this year.
The office will house “fully authorized representatives” of the Taliban.
Detainee exchanges will probably be an item on the US-Taliban agenda, according to a senior administration official. For the past four years, the Taliban has apparently held US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl captive. He is believed to be held in Pakistan.
The senior administration officials say that they consider the Haqqani network, which senior US military officials suspect of being responsible for violent attacks in the heart of Kabul, an “especially dangerous” and “capable” element of the Taliban.
Yet reconciling the Haqqani elements of the Taliban would be a difficult prospect, indicated Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top commander of US troops in Afghanistan: “All I’ve seen of the Haqqanis would make it hard for me to believe that they are reconcilable.”
Ideally, the peace talks will lead to a decrease in violence, which in turn will be helpful in allowing the Afghan military and police to “take the lead” for security throughout Afghanistan, which is set to officially happen this week.
That plan was announced at a summit with NATO officials in Chicago in May 2012.
While Afghan security forces will now be “in the lead” throughout the country, this is different from “completely responsible” for national security, senior administration officials note.
It is not until December 2014 – another 18 months – that Afghan security forces are slated to be “fully responsible” for security throughout the country, “meaning that we [US troops] move out of the combat role.”
The White House hopes the reconciliation move will also help lay the groundwork for national elections in Afghanistan, scheduled to take place in April 2014.
Dunford added that he is hopeful that since the peace talks will hinge on the Taliban’s renouncement of violence, it might serve to reduce deaths throughout the country.
“We all realize that the successful conclusion of the campaign is eventually going to come through the political process,” Dunford said.
On the question of when the White House would announce post-2014 troop levels for Afghanistan, which analysts point out it has been promising to do for weeks, Dunford said, “Certainly by fall we’ll have to have those numbers,” so that any necessary US troops can be in place by then.