WASHINGTON -President Barack Obama Tuesday expressed guarded optimism about the Taliban’s announcement Tuesday that it will sit down for direct peace talks with US and Afghanistan officials.

In comments at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland, Obama said the direct talks are an “important development”, according to the transcript of his remarks available here.

“This is an important first step towards reconciliation, although it is a very early step,” Obama told reporters. “We anticipate there will be lots of bumps in the road.”

In Washington, a senior US administration official said the United States on Tuesday praised Pakistan’s “genuine and constructive” support for the Afghan peace process soon after the announcement about the opening of Afghan Taliban office in Qatar.

Taliban spokesman Muhammed Naim confirmed at a news conference in Qatar that the group would participate in the talks. Naim said the Taliban is willing to use all legal means to end what it calls the occupation of Afghanistan, according to a media report.

In the first talks, which could come in a matter of weeks, the administration officials said they expect little substantive beyond U.S., Afghan and Taliban negotiators exchanging agendas.

Among the issues that the U.S. is expected to press the Taliban on are cutting ties to al-Qaeda and returning U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who went missing in Afghanistan nearly four years ago and is believed to be held by members of the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network.

The Taliban political commission, which is based in Doha, was authorized by Taliban leader Mullah Omar to begin the talks with American and Afghan officials, according to administration officials.

The officials said they do not know, at this point, who would represent the Taliban delegation in the talks, but expressed confidence it would representative of the entire movement.

While the administration officials said talks with the Taliban mark an important moment in 12-year-old conflict, they said it remained highly uncertain that the talks will lead to peace in the near-term.

“We need to be realistic,” one of the officials warned. “This is a new development, potentially significant, but peace is not at hand.”

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he didn’t know what impact the peace talks will have on levels of violence in Afghanistan. Afghan security forces, Dunford said, are losing 100 to 120 soldiers and police officers per week. The Haqqani network, militants responsible for major attacks in Kabul and deadly assaults on U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, are unlikely to be swayed by peace talks, he said.

Dunford said: “It’s hard to believe they are reconcilable.” Michael Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said talks will have little effect on military operations in Afghanistan.

“The talks will go slowly and should be accompanied by modest expectations,” Hanlon said.

Praising Pakistan’s role, one administration official said, “They understand that there is no stability in Pakistan without stability in Afghanistan.”

“I think Pakistan has been genuinely supportive of a peace process for Afghanistan. I think there has in the past been skepticism about their support, but in recent months I think we’ve seen evidence that there is genuine support and that they’ve employed their influence such as it is to encourage the Taliban to engage, and to engage in this particular format,” the official said, when asked about Islamabad’s role. The senior official acknowledged that that Pakistan’s leaders understand that the security situation in the two countries was linked very tightly, so their support was very much in keeping with their own national interest.

The administration officials described Pakistan as one of the core international players whose efforts led to Tuesday’s progress on pushing the reconciliation process forward.

“It was the result of multiple parties over several years. All the parties -- the main parties have already been mentioned. So my colleague mentioned the international players. Obviously, the core players here are the government of Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan, and the U.S. And, literally, it’s been months and months of sort of diplomatic state work to get us to a point where we think the office will open later today.” The American officials believe that the Taliban Political Commission, -- which is now based in Doha -- are “fully authorized representatives of the movement, and authorized by (their leader) Mullah Omar himself.”

“They declare that about themselves, and that’s our understanding based on all the reporting.”

Asked about the Haqqani network, a senior Administration official said the U.S. considered it an especially dangerous element of the overall Taliban movement.  “So the Haqqanis themselves declare themselves part of the overall movement, and we have all evidence that supports that claim. Now, they’re especially dangerous because they tend to strike at the heart of the capital, in Kabul.  And they’re an especially capable element of the Taliban insurgency, so we consider them a fully subordinate part of the overall insurgency.”

Questioned pointedly if the Haqqanis are they taking part in negotiations or they are on the outside, the official responded: “So when the Taliban movement opens the office and is represented by its political commission, that political commission represents, as we understand it, the Haqqani element as well. We don’t know the exact makeup of the Taliban delegation, but we believe that it broadly represents, as authorized by Mullah Omar, the entire movement to include the Haqqanis.” Citing successful developments in both areas - security and peace process- the senior Administration officials stressed that this fits into a strategy in which the U.S. and its allies are moving forward on each track outlined by President Barack Obama in Bagram.

“We’re continuing to train Afghan National Security Forces.  We’ve transitioned security responsibility to an Afghan lead across the country.  We’ve negotiated a strategic partnership with Afghanistan that will provide for U.S. support after 2014 in our discussions around how to help them provide for two security missions -- counterterrorism, and training and equipping Afghans.

“But also we feel that a political process is an important part of how we end this war, and so today is an important first step in that process, but it’s by no means the conclusion of that process.”

Another element of the U.S. strategy, they said, is having a regional buy-in for stability in South Asia.

“And the constructive partnership of countries like Pakistan in supporting reconciliation I think is an indicator that we are moving forward and seeking to get that type of regional consensus.”

The U.S. officials underscore that outcome of the peace process would mark that the Taliban and other insurgent groups meet three end conditions:  “First, that they break ties with al Qaeda; that they end the violence; and that they accept Afghanistan’s constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.  Further, recognizing that the opening of the office later today is but one milestone on the path toward peace, we call on the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin direct negotiations soon.