WASHINGTON -- The Taliban signaled a breakthrough in efforts to open Afghan peace negotiations on Tuesday, announcing the opening of a political office in Qatar and new readiness to talk with American and Afghan officials, who said in turn that they would travel to meet insurgent negotiators there within days.
If the talks begin, they would be a significant step in peace efforts that have been locked in an impasse for nearly 18 months, after the Taliban walked out and accused the United States of negotiating in bad faith. American officials have long pushed for such talks, believing them crucial to stabilizing Afghanistan after the 2014 Western military withdrawal.
The Taliban overture coincided with an important symbolic moment in that withdrawal: the formal announcement on Tuesday of a complete security handover from American troops to Afghan forces across the country. And that shift has already become obvious in recent months as the Afghan forces have tangibly taken the lead -- and as the Taliban have responded by increasing the tempo of attacks against them.
Yet since at least 2009, even top American generals maintained that it could not be won on the battlefield, and American diplomats have engaged in nearly three years of secret meetings and working through diplomatic back channels to lay the groundwork for talks to begin.
Diplomats and intermediaries from Germany, Norway and Britain have also played crucial roles, administration officials said Tuesday, and some said they believed Pakistan had played a more active role in recent months to urge the exiled Taliban leadership to move toward talks.
President Obama called the Taliban's announcement "an important first step toward reconciliation," but cautioned that it was only "a very early step."
"We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road," Mr. Obama said at a meeting with President François Hollande of France at the Group of 8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland.
There have been plenty of bumps already. Over the past 18 months, the peace effort has encountered pressure from nearly every quarter at one time or another: President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the exiled Taliban leadership, the Taliban's patrons in Pakistan, and critics in the United States who have reacted coolly to what they perceive as talking to terrorists.
A pair of Afghan mullahs in black turbans made the Taliban announcement in a televised address broadcast from Doha, the capital of Qatar. The Taliban's political and military goals "are limited to Afghanistan," said Muhammad Naim, the Taliban spokesman who read the statement.
The Taliban "would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan," Mr. Naim added, and seeks "a political and peaceful solution" to the conflict.
The appearance seemed to answer one immediate question hanging over the peace efforts: who was empowered to speak for the Taliban's secretive leader in exile, Mullah Muhammad Omar. American officials said that recent signals had made them sure that the Qatar office was being opened by Mullah Omar's true intermediaries, including the insurgents' stated lead negotiator, Tayeb Agha.
As well, the Taliban's wording on Tuesday adhered to previous requirements by American officials in informal talks in recent weeks, officials said. In particular, the statement represented the beginning of what is hoped will become a public break with Al Qaeda, which the Taliban sheltered before the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.
"Together, they fulfill the requirement for the Taliban to open a political office in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government," a senior Obama administration official said.
Along with getting the Taliban to disown international terrorist groups, the ultimate goal of the talks, from a Western and Afghan government point of view, is to persuade the Taliban to disarm and accept the Afghan Constitution. While Western officials have in the past suggested that the Constitution can be changed, the Obama administration on Tuesday stressed that accepting the current charter's "protections for women and minorities" was considered a condition of any eventual peace deal.
In the shorter term, American officials said that American envoys are to meet later this week with Taliban representatives in Qatar, and then members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which is to represent the government in talks, are to travel to the Persian Gulf emirate to sit down with the insurgents.
But the first meetings will probably feature little more than an exchange of agendas, another senior administration official said, cautioning against expectations for the talks to yield substantive results any time soon.
"There is no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all," the official said.
Talks between the United States and the Taliban "can help advance the process, but the core of it is going to be negotiations among Afghans and the level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one would expect," the official said. "So it is going to be a long hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all."
President Karzai referred to the impending opening of the Taliban office earlier in comments at the ceremony on Tuesday celebrating the transfer of all security responsibilities across Afghanistan to Afghan forces.
"Peace is the desire of the people of Afghanistan," Mr. Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul after the ceremony. "Peace is a hope that the people of Afghanistan make sacrifices for every day."
While he signaled his acceptance of the office's opening, he made it clear that he wanted any talks moved to Afghanistan as soon as possible. The Taliban have insisted on holding talks on neutral ground outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, where much of the Taliban leadership currently lives.
American officials said they, too, wanted to see the talks eventually moved to Afghanistan. But "it's not going to be possible in the near future," said one of the administration officials.
Mr. Karzai's concern is that the Taliban will use the Doha office as a forum to try to re-establish their political legitimacy, especially in international circles, rather than confining the office to peace talks.
His concerns did not appear unfounded. The Taliban, in its statement on Tuesday, offered an expansive view of the role to be played by the Qatar office. The office would allow the Taliban "to improve its relations with countries around the world through understanding and talks," as well as help it establish contact with the United Nations and aid groups, and to talk to the media.
The statement allowed for potential multiple meetings with Afghan officials, but that was qualified with a terse addition: "if needed."
The insurgents offered little clarity on why they were now willing to open the office and begin talks with the United States and the government of Mr. Karzai, who they have for years derided as an American puppet.
American officials said there was no agreement on what was once central enticement offered by the United States: a swap of five Taliban prisoners imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the sole American soldier known to be held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The failure of the proposed exchanged was the main reason the Taliban offered for suspending preliminary talks early in 2012.
"Of course we expect the Taliban to raise this issue," said Jennifer R. Psaki, a spokeswoman for the State Department. She added that Ambassador James Dobbins, the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will lead the team headed to Doha, will also raise the prospect of Sergeant Bergdahl's return.
"He has been gone far too long," Ms. Psaki said.
Without the prisoner swap, it was hard to discern what, if anything, the Taliban's leadership could show the rank-and-file to keep them fighting while talks moved forward.
Western diplomats in Kabul and officials in Washington said they believed the Taliban had grown weary of its international isolation, and wanted to shed its outcast status.
A self-serving explanation, to be sure, but one tempered by a dose of realism: The Taliban need only talk to gain a bit of legitimacy. They do not need to make realistic proposals or strike an actual deal, some diplomats and officials said.
"If they are have any long-term plan to be involved in running Afghanistan, international recognition is an important part even if they aren't going to come to the table with real offers of peace at this point," said one Western diplomat in Kabul.
Matthew Rosenberg reported from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan. Sharifullah Sahak and Habib Zahori contributed reporting from Kabul, and Jackie Calmes from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.