KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban and the U.S. said Tuesday they will hold talks on finding a political solution to ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan, as the international coalition formally handed over control of the country's security to the Afghan army and police.
The Taliban met a key U.S. demand by pledging not to use Afghanistan as a base to threaten other countries, although the Americans said they must also denounce al-Qaida.
But President Barack Obama cautioned that the process won't be quick or easy. He described the opening of a Taliban political office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as an "important first step toward reconciliation" between the Islamic militants and the government of Afghanistan, and predicted there will be bumps along the way.
Obama, who was attending the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for taking a courageous step by sending representatives to discuss peace with the Taliban.
"It's good news. We're very pleased with what has taken place," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Washington. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country has the second-largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan after the U.S., called opening the office "the right thing to do."
As the handover occurred, four U.S. troops were killed Tuesday at or near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, U.S. defense officials said. The officials said the four were killed by indirect fire, likely a mortar or rocket, but they had no other details. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details on the deaths.
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 renunciation of links with al-Qaida, the reason why America invaded the country on Oct. 7, 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said U.S. representatives will begin formal meetings with the Taliban in Qatar in a few days.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the only way to end the war was through a political solution.
"My perspective has always been that this war is going to have to end with political reconciliation, and so I frankly would be supportive of any positive movement in terms of reconciliation, particularly an Afghan-led and an Afghan-owned process that would bring reconciliation between the Afghan people and the Taliban in the context of the Afghan constitution," he said.
Dunford added that he was no longer responsible for the security of the country now that Afghan forces had taken the lead.
"Last week I was responsible for security here in Afghanistan," he said, adding that now it was Karzai's job. "It's not just a statement of intent — it's a statement of fact."
The transition to Afghan-led security means U.S. and other foreign combat troops will not be directly carrying the fight to the insurgency, but will advise and back up as needed with air support and medical evacuations.
The handover paves the way for the departure of coalition forces — currently numbering about 100,000 troops from 48 countries, including 66,000 Americans. By the end of the year, the NATO force will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will replaced, if approved by the Afghan government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise.
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."
The Obama administration officials said the U.S. and Taliban representatives will hold bilateral meetings. Karzai's High Peace Council is expected to follow up with its own talks with the Taliban a few days later.
But in making their announcement in Doha, the Taliban did not specifically mention talks with Karzai or his representatives.
"We don't recognize the Afghan government and the government of Karzai. The talks will be with the Americans only in Doha under the patronage of Qatar," he said. "We represent the people of Afghanistan. We don't represent the Karzai government."
The administration officials acknowledged the process will be "complex, long and messy" because of the ongoing level of distrust between the parties.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, vowed to continue to push the Taliban further, saying that the Taliban ultimately must also break ties with al-Qaida, end violence and accept Afghanistan's constitution — including protections for women and minorities.
They said the U.S. had long demanded that the Taliban make a statement distancing the group from international terrorism, but had said that they did not expect them to break ties with al-Qaida immediately. That would be one of the outcomes of the negotiating process, they added.
The U.S. will hold its first formal meetings with the Taliban in Doha within a few days, senior officials said, with the expectation that it will be followed up days later by a meeting between representatives of the Taliban and the High Peace Council. The first meeting will focus on an exchange of agendas and consultations on next steps.
Naim did not give a schedule for talks.
The Taliban office is in one of the diplomatic areas in Doha. Its sign reads: "The Political Bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Doha."
Despite Karzai's stated hope that the process will move almost immediately to Afghanistan, U.S. officials do not expect that to be possible in the near future.
The Taliban have for years refused to speak to the government or the High Peace Council, set up by Karzai three years ago, because they considered them to be U.S. "puppets." Taliban representatives have instead talked to American and other Western officials in Doha and other places, mostly in Europe.
Officials said Obama was personally involved in working with Karzai to enable the opening of the office, and that Kerry had also played a major role. Obama briefed other leaders at the summit meeting, which included the countries of Britain, Russia, Germany, Japan, Canada, France and Italy.
James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was scheduled to leave Washington on Tuesday to visit Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan, focusing primarily on "reconciliation efforts," according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.