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Obama calls U.S.-Taliban talks agreement ‘important first step’

Former militants attend a ceremony in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, during which they laid down their arms under a government amnesty program.
(Abdul Mueed, European Pressphoto Agency)

KABUL, Afghanistan — For more than a decade, the U.S. and the Taliban have met almost exclusively on the battlefield of America’s longest war. In coming days, both sides said, they will sit down at a negotiating table to discuss ending the bloodshed in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Taliban officials announced separately Tuesday that they would hold their first formal meeting in Doha, Qatar, as early as this week. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai said that he would send a delegation to Doha and that he hoped it would begin talks with the Taliban “as soon as possible.”

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U.S. officials said the talks would involve the Taliban Political Commission, a newly formed group authorized by fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They said they didn’t yet know who was on the commission, but it apparently includes or represents armed insurgent groups that include the Pakistani-based Haqqani network, which has carried out some of the most ambitious attacks on international forces in eastern Afghanistan and in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

“This is an important first step toward reconciliation, although it is a very early step,” President Obama said as he wrapped up meetings in Northern Ireland with leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations. “We anticipate that there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”

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Despite the fact that the U.S. will launch the negotiations with the Taliban, Obama said that the goal was to have an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.”

In a statement, the Taliban said it would satisfy two preconditions set by Western officials. It said it would oppose letting terrorists threaten other countries from Afghan soil, as Osama bin Laden did when he launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. It also expressed support for an Afghan peace process and improved relations with the outside world.

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A senior U.S. official, briefing reporters in Washington, said it was enough for the Taliban to distance itself from Al Qaeda, rather than renounce it as U.S. officials have long demanded. The administration “made clear that we didn’t expect immediately for them to break ties with Al Qaeda, because that’s an outcome of the negotiation process.”

Another senior administration official said the talks promised to be “complex, long and messy” and that success was far from assured.

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A series of lower-profile contacts in Doha early last year broke down quickly because of disagreements over a possible exchange of Taliban prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by a Taliban faction since 2009. Congress has blocked previous efforts to release Guantanamo prisoners.

Such preliminary issues could quickly scuttle the talks once again.

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The announcement of the renewed effort came as the U.S. military marked a milestone in its effort to withdraw from Afghanistan, and was reminded of the difficulties ahead.

In a ceremony in Kabul, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Karzai celebrated the formal transfer of security responsibilities from NATO troops to Afghan forces.

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An hour before they spoke, a roadside bomb exploded in the Pul-e-Surkh area of west Kabul, killing three civilians. Its target, a prominent politician, survived. The bombing was the fifth high-profile lethal attack in six weeks in the heavily guarded city.

The attacks have cast doubt on the ability of Afghan troops to maintain security after NATO combat forces withdraw at the end of 2014. U.S. officials have long hoped that progress toward a negotiated settlement would ease the violence.

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The Taliban made it clear in its statement that its fighters remained determined to unseat Karzai’s government and to “end the occupation” of NATO troops in the country.

“The Taliban have their own conditions,” said Wadir Safi, a Kabul-based independent political analyst. “Don’t expect all doors to open in a day or two. It’s taken three years to get this far. The Afghan government has spent a long time looking for a place to meet the Taliban. Now they have a place to meet, but it doesn’t mean everything will be up for negotiation within the next 24 hours.”

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He said the Taliban would work with the United Nations and other international groups, and would try to reach an agreement with the U.S. side before it agrees to meet with the High Peace Council, which represents Karzai’s government.

In comments Tuesday, Karzai said the talks should be transferred from Qatar to Afghanistan as quickly as possible, they should lead to the cessation of violence, and they shouldn’t be a tool for a “third country’s” exploitation of Afghanistan. Analysts said that referred to Pakistan.

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Some analysts warn that the Taliban might seek to string out the process for the next 18 months as NATO troops withdraw.

Sitting across the table from U.S. officials at a neutral location gives the Taliban legitimacy it has long craved. The movement remains badly divided, with some factions favoring power-sharing and others intent on holding on from sanctuaries in Pakistan until they can topple the Afghan government.

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Many Taliban leaders see little reason for a peace deal with Karzai, who is vilified by the militants as a U.S. puppet and who is scheduled to leave office next year. Nor is there any sign that Pakistan’s government, which U.S. officials say has long tolerated the Afghan Taliban inside its borders, is pressing for a deal.

“Historically, peace agreements work only when one side has decisively defeated the other or both sides are exhausted. Neither seems to be the case here,” said Barry Strauss, chairman of the history department at Cornell University. “Unfortunately, military force will probably play the deciding role. Given Afghanistan’s history in the years before 2001, that’s not a comforting thought.”

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Karzai is interested in a peace deal to secure his legacy, analysts said. But he and the powerful warlords who back his government remain wary of any agreement that would force them to share power and lose control of lucrative government ministries and contracts.

That leaves the Obama administration as the only player that wants a deal to stop the civil war from resuming after U.S. troops depart. A return to such violence would stain Obama’s legacy and raise questions about his vow to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorists.

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“Clearly the administration needs a deal,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. “Either there’s a deal, or we eventually lose the war.”

But the Taliban also faces pressure. Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the Taliban might be coming to the table now because it recognizes that it faces years of additional fighting, even after the U.S. withdraws most of its troops.

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“There are many within the Taliban that recognize they aren’t just going to take over the country again” as they did during the 1990s, he said.

Jonah Blank, a former South Asia policy director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Taliban has an incentive to negotiate because it wants all U.S. troops to withdraw, a halt to U.S. financial support for the Karzai government and U.S. recognition of a Taliban government if one eventually succeeds Karzai.

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“There are still a lot of things they want that are not in the U.S. game plan,” he said.

U.S. officials realize they must make progress on a peace deal before American influence on events wanes further, even if it means moving away from some of its long-held positions.

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In order to pressure Karzai and the Taliban to join peace talks, the White House has held off announcing how many U.S. troops it intends to keep in Afghanistan after 2014 to help train and advise Afghan army and police units. Washington and its allies have been talking about a force of 8,000 to 12,000, most of which would probably come from the U.S.

With the withdrawal looming, the administration will have to make public its troop decision soon, along with the annual U.S. military aid package. In doing so, it risks alienating Karzai and his supporters if the assistance is seen as too paltry or scuttling the peace talks if the U.S. presence is seen as too substantial.

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david.cloud@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Cloud and Hennessey reported from Washington and Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, respectively, and special correspondent Baktash from Kabul. Staff writers Mark Magnier in New Delhi and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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