The Obama administration and the Taliban each voiced readiness Thursday to enter peace talks while pledging to carry on with a decade of military conflict in Afghanistan until their rival objectives are met.
The separate statements by senior U.S. and Taliban officials illustrated the improved environment for Afghan reconciliation efforts as well as the daunting task ahead. Despite the possibility of some trust-building measures in the near future, such as the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar and the transfer of some Afghan detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, both sides remain committed to the fight.
"We don't have any idea standing here today what the outcome of such discussions could be," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters. The U.S. supports Afghan negotiations toward peace, she said. But everyone, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is going into the talks with "a very realistic sense of what is possible," she said.
For the past month, rumors have swirled about the possibility of peace talks between the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and the Taliban in the Gulf nation of Qatar. On Wednesday, Clinton gave the strongest indication yet of progress toward opening a political representative office for the Taliban in Qatar, whose role as would-be host for peace talks has gained reluctant approval from Karzai.
Even Thursday's emergence of an Internet video depicting U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters didn't appear to dampen hopes for negotiations. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised Karzai a full investigation and condemned the behavior as "entirely inappropriate" for members of the U.S. military. Asked about possible implications for peace talks, Clinton said the U.S. remained strongly committed to supporting Afghan efforts.
The United States and its coalition allies are preparing to withdraw most of their forces and end combat operations in 2014, with responsibility for security transferring to the greatly expanded Afghan army and police.
But despite a surge of foreign troops into Afghanistan in the past two years, and an overwhelming superiority in both numbers and firepower, the military effort has been unable to defeat the insurgency. Many now fear that a resurgent Taliban will be able to exploit the withdrawal of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force over the next three years by recapturing wide areas of the south and east.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the success of any negotiations depends on the Taliban adhering to specific conditions, "including laying down arms, renouncing al-Qaida and abiding by the Afghan constitution, including its provisions for minority rights and women's rights."
Carney said a political agreement was absolutely necessary, at some point, for Afghanistan's security and stability. But he insisted that the U.S. "will continue to energetically prosecute the military campaign as we pursue this political effort."
That viewpoint was echoed by the Taliban's political wing, which suggested in an emailed statement that it could join Afghan factions at the table even as it refuses to accept Washington's precondition that it recognize Karzai's government. It insisted that Karzai remained an illegitimate "stooge" of the West.
Militants have fought for the past 15 years to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan "in accordance with the request of its people," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. "It is for this purpose and for bringing about peace and stability in Afghanistan that we have increased our political efforts to come to mutual understanding with the world in order to solve the current ongoing situation."
Mujahid stressed that greater political engagement "does not mean surrender from jihad."
One of Karzai's and the international community's main conditions for reconciliation is that the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution, meaning they must recognize Karzai's government. Mujahid's outright rejection of this is likely to be an obstacle in the peace process.
The Obama administration and its allies appear to have gradually embraced talks as the best way to end the war, even if fighting continues beyond the deadline to withdraw foreign combat forces in 2014. The U.S. says those talks must be led by the Karzai government, but it has made its own contacts with Taliban representatives over the last year.
The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, will travel to Kabul and several Middle East capitals over the next two weeks to advance the reconciliation process. Asked if Grossman might meet directly with Taliban representatives, which would amount to the highest level of U.S. contact to date, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to rule out the possibility.
Unlike those earlier exploratory discussions, any negotiations that might take place in Qatar would be aimed at drawing the Taliban movement formally into the political process. But deep skepticism persists on all sides, including among some members of Congress and parts of Obama's administration, tempering any optimism.
On Thursday, the latest U.S. intelligence community take on the war in Afghanistan concluded the Taliban remained committed to taking back Afghanistan by force, and that it may only be paying lip service to a peace process.
The Afghan National Intelligence Estimate declared the war at a stalemate, with NATO security gains far outweighed by corruption at all levels of Afghan government, according to two current and one former U.S. official, who spoke anonymously to discuss the classified document.
The report also finds that special operations raids and programs to bolster local Afghan security are having some impact on hurting the Taliban. But as soon as NATO forces withdraw from an area, the Taliban returns, said the report, which was summarized in several news outlets.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Slobodan Lekic in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.