The Taliban’s announcement that they plan to open an office in Qatar and possibly begin peace negotiations deserves a close look and a full draught of skepticism.

This is the same group of militants, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, that ruled Afghanistan with such medieval brutality, denying women access to an education or health care. It is the same group that gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda before September 11, 2001, and that is still killing Nato troops and terrorising and murdering the Afghan people. But if there is even a remote chance of a political settlement — one that does not reimpose the Taliban’s horrors — it must be explored.

Tuesday’s announcement was short on specifics, but it did make clear that the militants want to talk to Washington, not Kabul. Early talks with American officials might get things moving. But there can be no deal without full Afghan participation, and the Obama administration should consider appointing an international mediator to bring a broad mix of participants — including Afghanistan’s meddling neighbours — to the table.

For months, the administration has been signaling its interest in talks, and we don’t know why the Taliban responded now. One theory is that they are being squeezed by American and Nato military operations. Another is that the Taliban are hoping to use the negotiations to speed up an American withdrawal and lock in Taliban terms. Either way, coalition forces must keep pushing back hard.

Apart from wanting the Americans out, it is not clear what the Taliban will demand. Washington must not budge on its insistence that as part of any agreement, the Taliban must sever all ties to Al Qaeda, renounce violence and accept the Afghan Constitution and its commitments to political and human rights for all Afghans.

There are many more big questions, including whether other Afghan extremists — most notably the Haqqani network — will come to the table, whether there can be a peace deal if they don’t and whether their patrons in Pakistan can be persuaded to support serious negotiations or will work to undermine them.

As a confidence-building measure, Washington is considering a Taliban request that it transfer some Taliban detainees to custody in Afghanistan or Qatar from the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Any prisoner release will first require careful vetting, and then there will have to be vigilant monitoring to ensure that the prisoners don’t go back to the battlefield. There is also talk from Americans of identifying some cease-fire zones where the Taliban’s interest in stopping the fighting could be tested. President Obama has pledged that the bulk of Nato troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That will be easier to achieve if there is a political agreement with the Taliban, but it must be one that ensures that Afghanistan does not again become a launching pad for attacks on this country and doesn’t revert to the horrors of Taliban rule.          –NYT editorial