KABUL, Afghanistan — In a potentially groundbreaking move, the Taliban announced on Tuesday that they were prepared to take the first step toward peace negotiations with the Afghan government after 12 years of war.
The announcement was welcomed by the United States, which had been pushing for such talks behind the scenes.
The announcement came in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where negotiations have been under way for more than two years with a number of international participants in an attempt to start peace talks.
If talks begin, it would be the first time that the antagonists in the Afghanistan war have undertaken negotiations to end the conflict, which has encumbered the United States since 2001, when American forces entered the country to rout Al Qaeda.
In a televised speech announcing the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, Mohammed Naim, a Taliban spokesman, said their political and military goals “are limited to Afghanistan” and that they did not wish to “harm other countries.”
Senior Obama administration officials in Washington said the Taliban statement contained two key pledges: that the insurgents believed that Afghan soil should not be used to threaten other countries — an indirect reference to Al Qaeda’s sheltering in Afghanistan with the Taliban regime’s blessing before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and that they were committed to finding a peaceful solution to the war.
“Together, they fulfill the requirement for the Taliban to open a political office in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government,” a senior administration official said.
American officials had long insisted that the Taliban make both pledges before talks start. The first element, in particular, is vital — it represents the beginning of what is hoped will be the Taliban’s eventual public break with Al Qaeda, the officials said.
The Taliban statement also said the office would be used to explain the group’s views to other countries, and to meet with representatives of the United Nations and with regional, international and nongovernmental organizations. The Taliban also said they planned to give media statements about the current political situation.
In the next step, United States officials said, American envoys will meet later this week with Taliban representatives in Qatar. Members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is to represent the government in talks, will then sit down with the insurgents.
But the first meetings will probably feature little more than an exchange of agendas, another senior administration official said, cautioning against expectations for the talks to yield substantive results any time soon.
“There is no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all,” the official said.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan referred to the impending opening of the office earlier in comments at a ceremony celebrating the handover of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces from the American-led multinational forces in Afghanistan.
While he signaled his acceptance of the office’s opening, he made it clear that he wanted any talks moved to Afghanistan as soon as possible. The Taliban have insisted on holding talks on neutral ground outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, where much of the Taliban leadership currently lives.
Mr. Karzai’s concern is that the Taliban will use the office as a forum to try to re-establish their political legitimacy, especially in international circles, rather than confining the office to peace talks.
“Peace is the desire of the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said at a Kabul news conference after the handover ceremony. “Peace is a hope that the people of Afghanistan make sacrifices for every day.”
Talks between the United States and the Taliban “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,” the second senior Obama administration official said. “So it is going to be a long, hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all.”