US to hold peace talks with Taliban

Washington wants organisation to break ties with al-Qaeda


The United States will meet the Taliban this week for talks aimed at achieving peace in Afghanistan, where the United States and the insurgents have fought a bloody and costly war for the past 12 years, US officials said toay.

The Taliban opened an office in Doha, the Qatari capital, to help restart talks and said it wanted a political solution that would bring about a just government and end foreign occupation of Afghanistan.

A senior US official said the talks would start in Doha on Thursday, but US president Barack Obama cautioned against expectations of quick progress, saying the peace process would not be easy or quick.

US officials say they hope this week’s talks will pave the way for the first-ever official peace negotiations between the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, which has waged a 12-year insurgency to oust Mr Karzai’s government and eject US-led Nato troops from the country.

US officials said the process could take many years and be subject to reversals. “This is an important first step towards reconciliation; although it’s a very early step,” Mr Obama said after a G8 meeting in Enniskillen. “We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”

US officials said that in the talks in Doha, the United States would stick to its insistence that the Taliban break ties with al-Qaeda, end violence, and accept the Afghan constitution, including protection for women and minorities.

US officials said it would be the first US meeting with the Taliban in several years. It was expected to involve an exchange of agendas, followed by another meeting a week or two later to discuss next steps.

A US official said he expected the initial meeting would be followed within days by another between the Taliban and the High Peace Council, a structure set up by Mr Karzai to represent Afghanistan in such talks.

A senior Afghan official said the Taliban had held secret discussions with the Afghan government and were willing to consider talks involving the High Peace Council.

The Taliban have until now said they would not countenance peace talks with the Karzai government, which they consider a stooge of the United States and other Western nations.

In opening the Qatar office, the Taliban said it sought a political solution, but said no dates had been agreed for talks. “There are no scheduled dates,” Tayeb Agha, a former chief of staff to the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said in remarks carried live on al Jazeera television.

Another Taliban representative, Mohammed Naeem, told a news conference at the opening of the Doha office that the Islamist group wanted good ties with foreign countries.

“We want to keep good relations with all of the world countries, in particular with our neighbouring countries,” he said. “But the Islamic emirate (Taliban) sees the independence of the nation from the current occupation as a national and religious obligation.”

Tiny, gas-rich Qatar has been an enthusiastic supporter of reconciliation efforts in a number of political crises and wars affecting the Muslim world including those in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Lebanon and Darfur, often hosting peace talks on its own soil to try to prove it can punch above its weight in international diplomacy.

The US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, 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. “We need to be realistic,” said one official.