After twelve years of war, is Afghanistan finally on the road to peace?
Hope sprung anew on Tuesday, with Taliban leaders announcing that they are willing to enter direct peace negotiations with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai. If the talks take place, they'll be the first tete-a-tete discussions between the two sides since a U.S.-led force ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.
The news came just as NATO formally handed over the lead on security to Afghan forces, a critical step ahead of a withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by the end of next year.
The first step — discussions between American and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar's capital — could begin as soon as Thursday, with the approval of the Taliban leader Mohammed Omar. After three years of bumpy progress toward peace negotiations, the Taliban has agreed to two preconditions that the U.S. has demanded for any talks: The insurgents have accepted that Afghan soil should not be used to stage attacks on other countries, and they have committed to finding a peaceful solution to the war.
The concessions, says The New York Times, indicate that the proposed talks are a "potentially groundbreaking move." The renunciation of threats against other nations from Afghanistan is particularly important, since it would theoretically sever links between the Taliban and al Qaeda, which planned and executed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks while its leaders were sheltered in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
American officials also point to the Taliban's decision to formally open a political office in Doha — a move more than two years in the making — as a significant step forward.
The optimism over the latest developments, however, is not universal. One senior U.S. official tells CNN that reconciliation would probably be "long, complex and messy," since trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban is low.
The U.S. has reportedly made concessions, too. American diplomats had insisted that the Taliban formally reject al Qaeda before direct talks could begin, says The Guardian. Now, the paper says, the U.S. has agreed that a break with al Qaeda would "be a 'negotiating aim' rather than a precondition for talks."
As one senior U.S. official puts it to The Guardian: "This is an important first step but it will be a long road. We have long said this conflict won't be won on the battlefield."