KABUL Afghanistan will send a team to Qatar for peace talks with the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai said on Tuesday, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition launched the final phase of the 12-year war with the last round of security transfers to Afghan forces.
Karzai's announcement was the first possible step forward in the peace process, which has struggled to achieve results despite many attempts, and is likely to be applauded by his Western backers.
"Afghanistan's High Peace Council will travel to Qatar to discuss peace talks with the Taliban," Karzai said in Kabul, referring to the council he formed in late 2010.
"We hope that our brothers the Taliban also understand that the process will move to our country soon," Karzai said of the fundamentalist Islamic group that ruled the country with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001.
There was no immediate comment from the Afghan Taliban.
Karzai was speaking following a ceremony in which the international coalition marked the beginning of the end of the handover of security to Afghan forces. About 2,000 people including NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, dozens of Western ambassadors and senior Afghan and international officials attended.
An explosion in Kabul early on Tuesday that targeted a senior member of the peace council illustrated concerns over how effectively the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces will be able to fight the growing insurgency after most foreign combat troops depart by the end of next year.
Mohammad Mohaqiq, a prominent Hazara politician, escaped unscathed from the attack but three people were killed and 21 wounded, a government official said.
Just a week separated the killings from two large-scale attacks in Kabul claimed by the Taliban, with militants attacking the airport on June 10 and a suicide bomber killing at least 17 people outside the Supreme Court the next day.
Dubbed "milestone 2013" by NATO, the handover will culminate in the departure of all NATO troops serving in Afghanistan under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) force at the end of 2014.
Afghan security forces have been rapidly built up by the international coalition, from about 40,000 in 2009 to 352,000 in February this year.
HIGH AFGHAN FATALITIES
The transfer of security responsibility began in July 2011 with a handover by ISAF of the country's most peaceful province, Bamiyan.
There have been three further rounds since, taking to 87 percent by last December the proportion of the Afghan population protected by the Afghan state.
Tuesday's tranche comprises restive eastern and south-eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. These include Helmand, Kandahar, Paktika, Paktia, Khost, Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman, Logar and Nuristan.
Fatalities among the Afghan security forces show how soon they have been expected to take the burden of the Afghan war. In one year, the Afghan state has lost more troops than NATO has across the entire war.
In reference to the peace talks, Karzai said three principles had been created - that having begun in Qatar, the talks must then immediately be moved to Afghanistan, that they bring about an end to violence and that they must not become a tool for a "third country" to exploit Afghanistan.
Karzai called on the Taliban last month to fight Afghanistan's enemies in what was widely seen as a swipe against Pakistan days after the neighbours' security forces clashed on their joint border.
Pakistan, which helped the Taliban take power in Afghanistan in the 1990s and is facing a Taliban insurgency itself, said it would continue to support reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan, though did not mention the Qatar talks in a statement on Tuesday.
The Pakistan Foreign Ministry, in a dig at Karzai for earlier "attempting to create an impression" that some Pakistan state institutions were against the peace effort, said promoting peace in Afghanistan was an important pillar of its policy.
"It is in our common interest to jointly address the common challenges of terrorism and extremism being faced by our region," it said.
Many Afghan leaders say Pakistan is still helping the militants in Afghanistan, seeing them as a tool to counter the influence of its old rival, India.
Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban is a separate entity to the Afghan Taliban, though allied with them.
Spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsansaid said the Pakistani group would support the peace talks, and would respect a peace agreement by not carrying out cross-border attacks. But he said such an agreement would not apply to the Pakistani Taliban.
"We are independent from the Afghan Taliban and are fighting for the implementation of Sharia Law in Pakistan," he said in a telephone call to Reuters.
"We will continue to fight against the drone attacks, and Pakistan army and government, who are under U.S. influence."
An Afghan diplomatic source in Qatar said the Afghan Taliban planned to open an office there as early as Tuesday.
"There is a plan for the office to be open today," said the source. "This will help start the peace talks again."
A team of envoys from the Taliban flew to Qatar in early 2012 to open talks with the U.S. government. But the Taliban suspended the talks in March 2012, saying Washington was giving mixed signals on the nascent Afghan reconciliation process.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul, Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Amena Bakr in Dubai; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)