After nearly 12 years of death and destruction, the Taliban and the US are to hold talks on finding a political solution to end the war in Afghanistan.
Sources in the Obama administration said a Taliban office to be opened in the Qatari capital of Doha was the first step toward the ultimate US-Afghan goal of a full Taliban renouncement of links with al Qaida. Formal meetings will begin within days.
The decision was a reversal of months of failed efforts to start peace talks while Taliban militants intensified a campaign targeting urban centres and government installations.
In Doha a Taliban spokesman said the group opposes the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries and supports the negotiating process, two key demands of both the US and Afghan governments before talks could begin. He made the statement shortly after the deputy foreign minister of Qatar said the Emir of the gulf state had given the go ahead for the office to open.
The spokesman said the Taliban are willing to use all legal means to end what they called the occupation of Afghanistan. The Obama officials said the US and Taliban representatives will hold bilateral meetings, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council is expected to follow up with its own talks a few days later. They acknowledged the process will be "complex, long and messy" because of the ongoing level of distrust between the parties.
They said that ultimately the Taliban must also break ties with al Qaida, end violence and accept Afghanistan's constitution - including protections for women and minorities.
Despite Mr Karzai's stated hopes that the process will move almost immediately to Afghanistan, however, US officials do not expect that to be possible in the near future.
Officials said that Mr Obama was personally involved in working with Mr Karzai to enable the opening of the office, and that US Secretary of State John Kerry had also played a major role. Mr Obama, who was in Northern Ireland for a meeting of the Group of 8 industrial nations, briefed fellow leaders at the summit on opening of the office.
The Taliban have for years refused to speak to the government or the Peace Council, set up by Mr Karzai three years ago, because they considered them to be American "puppets." Taliban representatives have instead talked to American and other Western officials in Doha and other places, mostly in Europe.
The announcements came on the day that Afghan forces took the lead from the Nato coalition for security nationwide, opening the way for the full withdrawal of most foreign troops in 18 months. For foreign combat troops on the ground, the transition means they will not be directly carrying the fight to the insurgency, but will advise and back up as needed with air support and medical evacuations.