US to Engage Taliban in Peace Talks

Taliban with weapons

The White House on Tuesday announced its support of direct talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the 12-year-old war that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The U.S. statement followed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s announcement in Kabul that negotiations would take place, and after securing an agreement from Taliban leaders that Afghanistan would no longer be a safe haven for groups planning or conducting terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies, senior White House officials told reporters in a conference call.

But that does not mean the Taliban will immediately be showing the door to al Qaida, which carried out the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan, or that U.S. will no longer engage the Taliban in combat.

“We’ve long had a demand on the Taliban that they make a statement that distances themselves from the movement, from international terrorism, but made clear we didn’t expect immediately for them to break ties with al Qaida, because that’s an outcome of the negotiation process,” one of the White House officials said. “So the statement that we expect today is a first step …. But it’s not as far as we will demand them to go at the end of the process.”

The officials also said the U.S. military will continue to back the Afghan army as it increasingly assumes the lead role in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaida terror groups in Afghanistan. In Kabul on Tuesday Karzai announced that Afghan forces are assuming the lead for security nationwide from the U.S.-led NATO forces.

The U.S. and NATO mission is slated to wrap up by December 2014, though the White House and Pentagon have made clear there will be some forces remaining behind to continue support of the Afghan military. But the talks announced today will have a direct impact on the size and role of those remaining forces, the officials said.

“The exact shape of our presence beyond 2014 has not been decided,” an official said, but peace talks are key to determining what shape it will take.

One official said that the U.S. will also be pressing the Taliban for the return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, now 27, who was captured on June 30, 2009.

“Clearly we do want to get our soldier, Sgt. Bergdahl, back, and detainee exchanges will be an item on the U.S-Taliban agenda,” he said. Bergdahl has reportedly been held by the Haqqani network, a Pakistani group aligned with the Taliban, though the group denies that.

The White House officials said the Haqqani network is subordinate to the Taliban leadership, so that the Taliban will be speaking for that group, as well.

The talks will initially be held in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban will establish a commission, though Karzai said he wants the negotiations moved to Kabul as soon as possible.

Over the past four years the Taliban has released five videos in which Bergdahl calls for an end to U.S. involvement in the war and for the release of Afghan prisoners held by the U.S. American officials consider the videos propaganda.

The White House officials said the Tuesday announcements are the culmination of months of talks, including in January, when Karzai was in the U.S. for talks with President Obama.

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