- Peace talks between U.S. and Taliban are "a first step in the process" of reconciliation
- But details remain to be worked out about the Taliban disavowing al Qaeda
- State Department spokeswoman is asked: "Is Taliban a terrorist group?"
- "Well, I'm not sure how they're defined at this particular moment," she responds
Hard questions are being raised about the Taliban in Afghanistan now that the United States will formally meet with the erstwhile al Qaeda ally.
Why is the U.S. government engaging the hard-line Islamic fundamentalist group, a regime that once sheltered Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network and was eventually routed out of Afghanistan by a U.S. invasion after the September 11, 2001, attacks?
Such tough questions were unleashed shortly after the announcement about upcoming U.S.-Taliban talks during a Tuesday news conference held by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
She was asked point-blank: "In the eyes of the U.S., is Taliban a terrorist group?"
Responded Psaki: "Well, I'm not sure how they're defined at this particular moment."
To be fair, Psaki described the U.S. peace talks with the Taliban -- which Afghan President Hamid Karzai opposes -- as the preliminary step toward long healing process in war-torn Afghanistan and creating "reconciliation" within the country.
In the meantime, many details remain to be worked out about the Taliban, Psaki said. On Wednesday, Psaki dismissed reports that the first meeting had been scheduled for Thursday and said a date hasn't been set.
"The important thing here is that we've long said that moving toward a reconciliation process, of which they are a key part -- the president has said this, the secretary (of state) has said this -- is an important part of moving towards a more stable Afghanistan. That's why we support these efforts," Psaki said. "That's why we've been so engaged, why the secretary has been so engaged, at every level of the government."
What has influenced U.S. leaders is the Taliban's announcement that they oppose "the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries" such as the United States and they support an Afghan peace process, Psaki said.
To advance peace, the Taliban has chosen, Doha, Qatar, to open an office under the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." On Tuesday, the Taliban told reporters it wanted to improve its international relations.
The Taliban announcement has angered the Afghan president, who said the country's High Peace Council won't take part in peace talks in Qatar until the process is led by Afghans.
In Kabul, Karzai met with politicians and members of the High Peace Council on Wednesday to talk about the Taliban office in Qatar.
In a statement, Karzai said his country wants peace, "but the messages of continuation of fighting, which were sent out during the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar, are completely in contradiction with the peace-wanting spirit of the government of Afghanistan."
Karzai was referring to how, during Tuesday's ribbon-cutting in Qatar, a Taliban spokesman said the group would continue its military campaign while at the same time renouncing international terrorism.
Seeming to make good on its military pledge, the Taliban later Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack inside the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan that killed four U.S. soldiers.
Karzai criticized the Taliban's promise about military advances.
"This shows that the continuation of such policies of the Taliban are for ... foreigners' strategies and goals," Karzai's statement said. He charged that "foreign powers" are behind the opening of the Taliban's office in Qatar.
U.S. officials, however, view the Taliban office as a good start -- "good news," in fact.
"We've long said that this conflict will likely not be won on the battlefield, and that is why we support this office," Psaki said.
The ability to open a formal line of communication with the Taliban is important to reaching an "end goal" of disassociating the Taliban from al Qaeda and bringing peace to Afghanistan, Psaki said.
Psaki asserted that the rights of women -- protected under the Afghan constitution -- are not open for negotiation with the Taliban, which has oppressed and mistreated women.
"It's not up for negotiation," Psaki said of the rights of Afghan women and minorities. "That is the end goal of the process of reconciliation. This is a first step in the process. I'm not overestimating or overstating what it means, but certainly, a first step is one farther step than we had just a few days ago."
Psaki reiterated the "beginning of the process" theme -- even when asked whether the U.S. government now considers the Taliban "a legitimate fighting group" as opposed to "enemy combatants."
"Our goal in Afghanistan continues to be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda to ensure that the country can never again be a safe haven for terrorists. We're doing both at the same time, talking and winding down our fighting in the country," Psaki said.
But what about the several Taliban leaders who are on a most-wanted list? Will the United States delist them as the Taliban has sought?
"This is just the first step in the process. There is a journey to go here," Psaki said. "So it's significant because we are taking a step in the process, but there need to be negotiations, there need to be discussions."
U.S. forces in Afghanistan now stand at about 66,000 but are expected to fall to 32,000 by the end of the year, and there will be even fewer in 2014. Gen. John Allen, the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, recommended a level between 6,000 and 15,000 troops, but the Pentagon has cut the proposed figure further, to between 2,500 and 9,000, according to a defense official.
That U.S. withdrawal raises the stakes for Afghanistan to govern itself in peace.