US and Taliban to open direct peace talks in Qatar

The US is to open direct peace talks with the Taliban, senior White House officials have announced.

The first meeting is due to take place in the coming days in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban have just opened their first official overseas office.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his government was also sending delegates to Qatar to talk to the Taliban.

The announcement came on the day Nato handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan to government forces.

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image of David LoynDavid LoynBBC News, Kabul

There have been three distinct stages in the life of the Taliban.

First they came as a conquering army that swept up from the south in the mid-1990s in reaction to the criminality and corruption of the Afghan civil war.

Secondly came the austere Islamist government from 1996-2001, oppressive to women and with a singular view of the outside world. They were defeated in the war after 9/11.

But since reorganising six years ago they insist that they are different – in favour of education even for girls.

While fighting an insurgency to end foreign occupation, it is this group who have a political wing, who are keen to talk, and hinting that they would be willing to sever their links with al-Qaeda.

But while the Taliban may have opened a political office, there is no guarantee that the men who are still fighting in the field will accept the results of talks.

US officials said prisoner exchanges would be one topic for discussion with the Taliban, but the first weeks will mainly be used to explore each other’s agendas.

However, the talks are on condition that the Taliban renounce violence, break ties with al-Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution – including the rights of women and minorities.

US officials told reporters the first formal meeting between US and Taliban representatives was expected to take place in Doha next week, with talks between President Karzai’s High Peace Council and the Taliban due a few days after that.

The level of trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban is described as “low”.

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