President Barack Obama warmly welcomed the announcement on Tuesday of fresh reconciliation talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban, as well as plans to launch a new round of direct negotiations between the insurgent force and the United States.
U.S. officials said one of the likely items on the U.S.-Taliban agenda would be the return of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network since 2009.
"This is an important first step toward reconciliation," Obama told reporters after a meeting with French President François Hollande on the sidelines of the G-8 summit of rich countries. "It's a very early step—we anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road—but the fact that the parties have an opportunity to talk and discuss Afghanistan's future I think is very important."
U.S. and Taliban negotiators will hold formal talks "in a couple of days" in the Gulf state of Qatar, where the Taliban will officially open an office on Tuesday, U.S. officials said earlier on a conference call with reporters. The negotiations are part of a diplomatic push to ease the American withdrawal by the end of 2014 and ensure the war-torn country does not serve as a springboard for attacks like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.
"The one thing that we do believe is that any insurgent group, including the Taliban, is going to need to accept an Afghan Constitution that renounces ties with al-Qaida, ends violence and is committed to the protection of women and minorities in the country," Obama said.
The White House announced the face-to-face negotiations even as Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai proclaimed that his war-torn country’s military and police had taken the lead from NATO forces. Karzai also announced the start of separate peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar while calling for the negotiations to move to Afghanistan as soon as possible.
"We need to be realistic. This is a new development, a potentially significant development. But peace is not at hand,” a senior U.S. administration official cautioned on the call, which was held on condition that none of the participants be named. The process of political reconciliation in Afghanistan "will certainly promise to be complex, long and messy," another top official said on the call.
In the U.S.-Taliban talks, Washington is likely to send James Dobbins, who took over May 10 as the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officials on the call said they believed the Taliban negotiators would be "fully authorized" by the militia's leader, Mullah Omar, who has eluded capture since U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in late 2001.
While the negotiations are a good first step on the path to peace, "there's no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all," the first official underlined. "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."
Obama warned that "we don't anticipate this process will be easy or quick, but we must pursue in parallel with our military approach." The United States and NATO "remain fully committed to our military efforts to defeat al-Qaida and to support the Afghan National Security Forces," the president added.
Asked on the conference call whether possible prisoner exchanges might be discussed, a top Obama aide said: "Clearly, we do want to get our soldier, Sgt. Bergdahl, back. And I would expect that detainee exchanges would be an item on the U.S.-Taliban agenda."
Still, "the first meeting is likely to be just an exchange of agendas rather than any substantive, detailed discussion. We’ll tell them what we want to talk about; they’ll tell us what they want to talk about; and we’ll both then adjourn and consult on next steps, and then have another meeting in a week or two later," one official said.
U.S. officials have long complained about Pakistan's role in at least tolerating the flow of insurgents and weapons into Afghanistan. But "Pakistan has been genuinely supportive of a peace process for Afghanistan," one official said."There has in the past been skepticism about their support, but in recent months I think we've seen evidence that there is genuine support and that they've employed their influence such as it is to encourage the Taliban to engage and to engage in this particular format."
The officials declined to spell out in detail how the talks might affect the timetable for withdrawing America's roughly 60,000 troops. While U.S. and NATO combat forces are due to depart by the end of 2014, putting their Afghan counterparts solely in charge, Obama is expected to leave a residual force to help train the local military and police and carry out counterterrorism operations.
"The levels and nature of our presence are obviously going to be influenced, on the one hand, by levels of violence in Afghanistan and, on the other hand, by the presence or absence of international terrorists in or around Afghanistan," one official said. "To the extent the talks contribute to diminishing violence and eliminating international terrorists in and around Afghanistan, that will have an impact on decisions regarding our future presence."
According to the independent organization iCasualties, 2,238 Americans have died in Afghanistan, including 64 in 2013.