America’s winding down of the war in Afghanistan picked up steam on Tuesday with the announcement that it will participate in its first peace talks with the Taliban in more than a year in the coming days.
Senior administration officials revealed the talks on a call with reporters on Tuesday morning, stressing that they are only the beginning of what will “certainly promise to be complex, long and messy, but nonetheless, [..] an important first step.” Officials were also quick to downplay the idea that peace talks will impact ongoing military operations against the Taliban. “Our military and diplomatic efforts continue to be mutually reinforcing,” the same official said.
Meetings between the Taliban and the Afghan government will take place in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban has worked in fits and starts over the last several years to set up a diplomatic headquarters. That office finally opened on Tuesday as well when the Qatari government gave final approval to the post. A Taliban spokesman indicated in a statement that moving forward the former leaders of Afghanistan will oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries and that they support an Afghan peace process, two steps the U.S. had identified as preconditions. A senior administration official confirmed, however, that the Taliban will not have to drop immediately drop its ties to Al-Qaeda before conducting talks.
Afghan officials and the Taliban will be the key participants in the discussions, according to the officials who called it “an Afghan initiative and this is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.” President Hamid Karzai welcomed the coming talks, announcing that the High Peace Council will travel to Qatar to conduct the talks. “We hope that our brothers the Taliban also understand that the process will move to our country soon,” Karzai said.
The United States’ announcement comes on the same day that Afghan security forces were handed control of military operations against the Taliban. Following today, NATO forces will only serve as support to the Afghans during combat missions, part of the transition that will culminate in the complete withdrawal of Western combat forces due to finish in 2014. The Obama administration has not yet revealed the number of U.S. troops it will seek to leave behind in the country after that date, though the number has been speculated to be as high as 20,000.
The handover will provide an opportunity to appraise how well the Afghan security forces will be able to handle full responsibility for the security of their country after 2014. A number of recent attacks have raised concerns over the preparedness of the Afghans, including suicide attacks on the Afghan Supreme Court and the International Committee of the Red Cross in recent weeks. Issues still remain as well over the use of children in the Afghan National Police and other possible human rights violations.