Taliban Agrees to Join Peace Talks with U.S.

Image credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

The Taliban said today that they are prepared to sit down for direct peace talks with Afghan and U.S. officials over the future of Afghanistan.

The news comes as Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced today that Afghan security forces have taken over the country's security lead from the U.S.-led NATO coalition.

Both developments were major milestones in the 12 year war that began shortly after al Qaeda, protected by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, launched the 9/11 terror attacks against the U.S.

Taliban officials today released a statement opposing the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries, a critical step to breaking ties with Al Qaeda, and supporting the Afghan peace process.

These statements fulfill the requirements for the Taliban to open a political office in Doha, Qatar, for the purpose of negotiating with the Afghan government.

President Obama said today, "This is an important step towards reconciliation, although its an early step, we anticipate there will be lots of bumps in road. But the fact that the parties have talked and discussed Afghan future that is very important."

"One thing we do believe is any insurgent group including the Taliban will need to accept an Afghan constitution that renounces ties to al Qaeda, ends violence, and is committed to protections [for] women and minorities in the country," the president said.

A senior Obama administration official said, "We welcome this. These statements represent an important first step towards reconciliation - a process that, after 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan, will certainly promise to be complex, long and messy, but nonetheless, this is an important first step."

While the U.S. will have its first direct talks with the Taliban in the coming days, administration officials stressed that the peace negotiating process must be Afghan-led.

"The core of this process is not going to be the U.S.- Taliban talks. Those 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. So it's going to be a long, hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all," the official said.

In addition to encouraging the Taliban to sever ties with Al Qaeda, detainee exchanges are also expected to be on the U.S-Taliban agenda, including the return of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

"Yes. Clearly, we do want to get our soldier, Sergeant Bergdahl, back. And I would expect that detainee exchanges would be an item on the U.S.-Taliban agenda," an official said.

"That will be a discussion item. It's not something that is agreed to at this point, so it's a topic for the types of discussions that the U.S. will have with the Taliban," added another official. Senior administration officials hailed today as a "milestone on the path toward peace" but also tried to temper expectations. "We need to be realistic. This is a new development, a potentially significant development. But peace is not at hand," an official said.

This will not be the first time that U.S. and Taliban officials have engaged in talks. They have done so, albeit quietly, in the past.

ABC News' Aleem Agha, Dana Hughes and Luis Martinez contributed to this report