June 18, 2013

U.S., Taliban to start talks on ending Afghan war

It's a major breakthrough, but the Obama administration says the ultimate U.S.-Afghan goal is a full Taliban renouncement of al-Qaida.

The Associated Press

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Muhammad Naeem a representative of the Taliban speaks during a press conference at the official opening of their office in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. In a major breakthrough, the Taliban and the U.S. announced Tuesday that they will hold talks on finding a political solution to ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan as the Islamic militant movement opened an office in Qatar. American officials with the Obama administration said the office in the Qatari capital of Doha was the first step toward the ultimate U.S.-Afghan goal of a full Taliban renouncement of links with al-Qaida. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)

Obama has not yet said how many soldiers he will leave in Afghanistan along with NATO forces, but it is thought that it would be about 9,000 U.S. troops and about 6,000 from its allies.

It is uncertain if the Afghan forces are good enough to fight the insurgents. The force numbered less than 40,000 six years ago and has grown to about 352,000 today.

In some of the most restive parts of the country, it may still take a "few months" to hand over security completely to the Afghans, Dunford said.

The transition comes at a time when violence is at levels matching the worst in 12 years, further fueling some Afghans' concerns that their forces aren't ready.

The decision to open the Taliban office was a reversal of months of failed efforts to start peace talks while the militants intensified a campaign targeting urban centers and government installations.

Experts warned that it would be a mistake to expect too much.

"The keys are to keep expectations low, to remember that a compromise is unlikely because no one can say what it would consist of," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. He added that in his opinion, the Taliban wrongly "expect to win the war once NATO is largely gone come 2015."

"All that said, it's a potentially useful step if we don't confuse ourselves or wind up in polarizing debates within the coalition," O'Hanlon said.

In Doha, Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri, the assistant to the foreign minister of Qatar, said the Emir of the Gulf state had given the go-ahead for the office to open.

"Negotiations are the only way for peace in Afghanistan," Al-Hajri said.

The Taliban emerged from the Pakistani-trained mujahedeen, or holy warriors, who battled the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s with secret backing by the CIA. Civil war broke out when the pro-Soviet Afghan government collapsed following the departure of Moscow's troops. The U.S. took an arms-length position of neutrality as rival warlords shelled Kabul into ruins.

By 1994, the Taliban had evolved into a united military and political force and in 1996, the group took control of Afghanistan. Led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, but the group was toppled shortly after the U.S. and allied invasion one month later.

The U.S.-led invasion leveraged the firepower of factions, such as the Northern Alliance, who had held out against the Taliban after it seized power in 1996. CIA and U.S. special operations support for anti-Taliban forces enabled the U.S. to oust the Islamists by December 2001 without committing large numbers of U.S. ground troops, and the group appeared to have been defeated as a military threat.

However, by 2005, the Taliban was beginning to make a comeback, showing signs of improved training and equipment, while using territory inside Pakistan as a sanctuary.

On Monday, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naim said the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban were known when they ruled the country, was willing to use all legal means to end what they called the occupation of Afghanistan. But he did not say they would immediately stop fighting.

"The jihad continues to end the occupation and establish an Islamic emirate. To achieve this goal, we will follow every legitimate means," he said. "The emirate of the Taliban, with its military effort, has a strategic goal related to the future of Afghanistan. The movement is not intending to harm any other parties and will not allow anybody to use Afghan territory to threaten other countries."

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