Taliban Hold High-Level Talks With Karzai Government, Washington Post Says

 
By Karen DeYoung, Peter Finn and Craig Whitlock
     Oct. 5 (Washington Post) -- Taliban representatives and the
government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have begun secret,
high-level talks over a negotiated end to the war, according to
Afghan and Arab sources.
     The talks follow inconclusive meetings, hosted by Saudi
Arabia, that ended more than a year ago. While emphasizing the
preliminary nature of the current discussions, the sources said
that for the first time they believe that Taliban representatives
are fully authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan
Taliban organization based in Pakistan, and its leader, Mohammad
Omar.
     "They are very, very serious about finding a way out," one
source close to the talks said of the Taliban.
     Although Omar's representatives have long publicly insisted
that negotiations were impossible until all foreign troops
withdraw, a position seemingly buoyed by the Taliban's resilience
on the battlefield, sources said the Quetta Shura has begun to
talk about a comprehensive agreement that would include
participation of some Taliban figures in the government and the
withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops on an agreed timeline.
     The leadership knows "that they are going to be sidelined,"
the source said. "They know that more radical elements are being
promoted within their rank and file outside their control. . . .
All these things are making them absolutely sure that, regardless
of [their success in] the war, they are not in a winning
position."
     A half-dozen sources directly involved in or on the margins
of the talks agreed to discuss them on the condition of
anonymity. All emphasized the preliminary nature of the talks,
even as they differed on how specific they have been. All
expressed concern that any public description of the meetings
would undercut them.
     "If you talk about it while you're doing it, it's not going
to work," said one European official whose country has troops in
Afghanistan.
     Several sources said the discussions with the Quetta Shura
do not include representatives of the Haqqani group, a separately
led faction that U.S. intelligence considers particularly brutal
and that has been the target of recently escalated U.S. drone
attacks in northwestern Pakistan.
     The Haqqani group is seen as more closely tied to the
Pakistani intelligence service than the Quetta Shura, based in
the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan. But one
Afghan source, reflecting tension between the two governments,
said Pakistan's insistence on a central role in any negotiations
has made talks difficult even with the Quetta group. "They try to
keep very tight control," this source said of the Pakistanis.
     Reports of the talks come amid what Afghan, Arab and
European sources said they see as a distinct change of heart by
the Obama administration toward full backing of negotiations.
Although President Obama and his national security team have long
said the war would not be won by military means alone, sources
said the administration only recently appeared open to talks
rather than resisting them.
     "We did not have consensus, and there were some who thought
they could do it militarily," said a second European official.
The Europeans said the American shift began in the summer, as
combat intensified with smaller-than-expected NATO gains despite
the arrival of the full complement of new U.S. troops, amid
rising U.S. public opposition to the war.
     The United States' European partners in Afghanistan, with
different histories and under far stronger domestic pressure to
withdraw their troops, have always been more amenable to a
negotiated settlement. "What it really boils down to is the
Americans both supporting and in some cases maybe even
participating in talking with the enemy," the first European
official said. "If you strip everything away, that's the deal
here. For so long, politically, it's been a deal breaker in the
United States, and with some people it still is."
     Whatever domestic political difficulties the administration
may fear would result from a negotiated deal with the Taliban,
this official said, would be resolved by ending the war earlier
rather than later. "A successful policy solves the political
problem," he said.
     U.S. officials depicted a somewhat different progression
leading to the same conclusion, insisting that the time for real
negotiations has only now arrived. Although last fall's strategy
review concluded that defeat of the Taliban was an unrealistic
goal, it was followed this year by "a period of time where we've
been focused on getting our inputs in place, moving resources
into Afghanistan," a senior administration official said. The
Afghan government has also been positioning itself for serious
talks, he said, through international conferences in January and
July, the convening of a "peace jirga," or council, in Kabul and
last week's naming of the members of an official government
reconciliation team.
     "Now, yeah, there's a sense that we mean what we say" when
voicing support for a political process, the official said. "The
president's view is that we have to do these things at the same
time. We can't take the approach that we're just going to be
putting our foot on the gas on the military side of things and
will get around to the political," he said.
     Last month, Obama pressed his national security team to be
more specific about what it meant by a political solution, and
"reinforced" the need to be working simultaneously on the
military and political sides of the equation, the official said.
     Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in
Afghanistan, told reporters last week that high-level Taliban
leaders had "sought to reach out" to the top level of the Karzai
government. "This is how you end these kinds of insurgencies," he
said.
     The administration is under pressure to show progress in
resolving the war before the deadline Obama has set of beginning
a troop withdrawal next summer. "We all concur that this is a
critical year in Afghanistan," Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N.
representative in Afghanistan, said in remarks last week at the
International Peace Institute in New York.
     If the hypothetical endpoint is "that by July next year
something will have to be clear," he said, the various players
had to start thinking about how they were going to get there.
"There is no military solution," he said. "We all know it. And by
the way, the Taliban knows it too. . . . And there is only one
format for the next months. . . . It is political dialogue,
reconciliation, deal."
     He predicted "very rough months" ahead, "when the maximum
pressure is being exercised . . . by both sides at the same time
in order to have a better position in terms of the so-called
dialogue." Among the potential roadblocks, he cited opposition
from a resurgent Northern Alliance, the non-Pashtuns who
overthrew the Taliban with U.S. assistance in 2001, and division
of the Taliban into "several groups."
     De Mistura and the United States' European partners have
urged the administration to reach out more forcefully to other
countries in the region - including Russia, India and Iran - to
become part of a negotiated solution in Afghanistan.
     "In Iran, publicly they say the [foreign] troops have to
go," said one European official who met recently with officials
in Tehran. "But they know that if we leave without an
arrangement, there will be trouble for them."
     Sources differed on the location, content and number of the
renewed discussions, with one saying a recent session had been
held in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. This source said the
Taliban representatives had floated some peace terms, including
exile for Omar in Saudi Arabia with protection and treatment as a
former head of state. Others close to the talks, however, said
that while the discussions appeared genuine, they were nowhere
near that level of specificity.
     A senior Saudi official said there had been no meetings his
government was aware of in his country since last year's talks
ended.
     The Saudis have the potential to play a key role in the
talks, for political and religious reasons. Saudi Arabia was one
of only three countries, along with the UAE and Pakistan, to give
diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government in Afghanistan
before 2001. As custodians of the two holiest sites in Islam, and
with their Wahhabi tradition, the Saudis may have more religious
credibility to shepherd negotiations with the Taliban than other
Muslim countries.
     In the fall of 2008, the Saudis agreed to host a secret
dialogue between Taliban and Karzai government representatives
while saying they would not formally bless them unless the
Taliban agreed to three conditions - a public rejection of
al-Qaeda, recognition of the Afghan government and relinquishment
of Taliban arms. Those remain Saudi conditions, shared by the
Karzai government and the Obama administration. The Saudis sat in
on the meetings and briefed interested parties, including the
United States, on what was said.
     deyoungk@washpost.com finnp@washpost.com
whitlockc@washpost.com
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