The United States will begin formal talks with the Taliban, including the Haqqani network, in Doha, Qatar, in a couple of days, Obama administration officials said in a major announcement on Tuesday. The engagement, the first of its kind since the post 9/11 conflict, follows key concessions made by Washington, including dropping the pre-condition that Taliban immediately break ties with al-Qaida, in return for much broader, generic, self-serving commitments by the unyielding terrorist group.

In a conference call from Northern Ireland where President Obama is attending the G8 summit, US officials said they expected Taliban to issue a statement opposing the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries (which implicitly meant not sheltering al-Qaida); and second, that they support an Afghan peace process.

As it turned out, the statement released by the Taliban was stunning in its implied rejection of even the minimum US demands and assertive in its own assumption of Afghan leadership and how it would achieve its objectives: "It is well known to all that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has been waging jihad to put an end to the occupation and form an independent Islamic system," it said, interposing itself in the Afghan leadership position and projecting the US,and not al-Qaida, as the problem.

It also said "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considerers it its religious and national duty to gain independence from the occupation and for that purpose has utilised every legitimate way and will utilise it in future too," while making no commitment or reference to the Afghan constitution, the current US-backed leadership in Kabul, or the rights of women and minorities.

Earlier US officials had already reeled back on their expectation. "We've long had a demand on the Taliban that they make a statement that distances themselves from the movement from international terrorism, but made clear that we didn't expect immediately for them to break ties with al-Qaida, because that's an outcome of the negotiation process," they said, explaining the concessions made to the nihilistic outfit, which, surprisingly, includes elements Washington has repeatedly described as, and officially designated as, a terrorist group - the Haqqani network.

US officials had also maintained that they had got enough and the "statement that we expect today is this first step in distancing them, distancing the movement from international terrorism" although they conceded "it's not as far as will demand them to go at the end of the process."

The negotiating group, which calls itself Taliban Political Commission, are the "fully authorized representatives of the movement, and authorized by Mullah Omar himself" administration officials said against the backdrop of Washington having been previously fooled by elements claiming to represent Taliban. "We don't know the exact makeup of the Taliban delegation, but we believe that it broadly represents, as authorized by Mullah Omar, the entire movement to include the Haqqanis," they added.

The officials were cautious about the outcome of what they said was a first step in what could be a complex, long, and messy dialogue. "I think we need to be realistic. This is a new development, a potentially significant development. But peace is not at hand," one official said.

In fact, officials said the first meeting is likely to be just an exchange of agendas rather than any substantive, detailed discussion. "We'll tell them what we want to talk about; they'll tell us what they want to talk about; and we'll both then adjourn and consult on next steps, and then have another meeting in a week or two later," they said. Among the things the US will want to talk about from the beginning is how Taliban going to cut ties with al-Qaida the group that attacked US on 9/11 and was sheltered by the Taliban "how quickly, exactly how they're going to do it, what it means."

Washington's dramatic outreach with the Pakistan-backed Taliban came even as US - and Nato-led international coalition handed over the lead on security to Afghan National Forces at a formal ceremony in Kabul, marking a milestone in the protracted conflict in the land-locked country. It also came on the eve of secretary of state John Kerry's visit next week to India (and Pakistan), where the latest developments will be part of the talks' agenda. Officials said Pakistan was supportive of the dialogue and had played a key role in bringing Taliban to the table.

They however implicitly maintained that despite the diminishing American military footprint, engaging Taliban did not mean Washington would abandon its core interests. It would continue to protect its equities Afghanistan.
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