In a historic step, U.S. officials will open formal peace negotiations with the Taliban with the hopes of ending insurgent attacks as the the U.S. prepares to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan.
At the meetings, which will begin in the Qatari capital Doha Thursday, a delegation authorized by Taliban leader Mohammad Omar will meet with senior State Department and White House officials. The administration said it hopes the talks, which it called a "milestone," would aid in ending the decade-long conflict and preventing a civil war.
The announcement of the opening of the Taliban office came on the same day NATO forces officially handed over responsibility of security across Afghanistan to Kabul, after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Taliban, U.S. officials, Pakistan and Qatar.
"It's an important first step toward reconciliation," a senior administration official said, that "promises to be complex, long and messy. But nonetheless an important first step."
At the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland, President Obama expressed cautious optimism at the opening of the talks.
"An Afghan-led, an Afghan-owned, peace process is the best way to end the violence," Obama said. But "it's a very early step. We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government will not send a representative to the talks, but rather, the U.S. plans to keep negotiations with the Taliban separate for the time being.
The Taliban, which has until now refused to recognize the Karzai government, said Tuesday it intends to "hold meetings with Afghans as times may demand." Karzai has invited Taliban members to take part in elections next year.
Ultimately, the U.S. would take a backseat in the negotiations to talks among Afghans, an administration official said.
The Taliban's announcement demonstrated an effort on the part of the group that once played host to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as a "first step in distancing them... from international terrorism," the official said.
The Taliban said they "would not allow anyone to threaten other countries' security from Afghan soil."