June 20 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. has made “very preliminary” contacts with Afghan Taliban guerrillas, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, after Afghanistan’s president said he is looking to Pakistan to mediate peace talks.
President Hamid Karzai’s speech, and a reaction yesterday from U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, illustrated again recent tensions between the U.S. and the Afghan leader whose government it is supporting.
After Karzai criticized the U.S. as an occupying force pursuing its own interests, Eikenberry told students in the western city of Herat that “hurtful and inappropriate” comments by “some of your leaders” undermine support in the U.S. for its aid and military role in Afghanistan.
Karzai’s speech shows that he “has lost hope over America’s ability to either defeat the Taliban or bring them to some kind of agreement,” said Waheed Mujda, a political analyst at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in Kabul.
With U.S. congressional leaders such as Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pressing President Barack Obama to withdraw a substantial number of troops next month at the start of a promised drawdown, “Karzai is seriously concerned that the U.S. is pulling out of the conflict and so he is leaning toward working with Pakistan instead on peace negotiations,” Mujda said.
Obama has vowed to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by 2014, handing over security duties to Afghan forces that the U.S. is training and equipping.
‘Under Their Feet’
Karzai, who has praised and criticized the international military force in Afghanistan, told a youth conference in Kabul June 18 that the U.S.-led troops “are here for their own national interests.” Repeating his criticism of U.S. military tactics that have caused civilian casualties, he said foreign troops “put our lives under their feet and dishonor the people.”
While U.S. officials often decline to comment on Karzai’s criticisms of the American presence, Eikenberry responded, without naming Karzai.
“When Americans who are serving in your country at great cost in terms of our lives and treasures, hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own narrow interests and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people, my people in turn are filled with confusion and they grow weary of our effort here,” Eikenberry said.
While State Department officials and envoys from other countries have met Taliban representatives in recent weeks, “real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter,” Gates said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure, and begin to believe that they can’t win before they’re willing to have a serious conversation,” he said.
“We’ve all said all along that a political outcome is the way most of these war’s end,” Gates said on the CNN program, broadcast yesterday. “The question is when and if they’re ready to talk seriously about meeting the redlines that President Karzai, and that the coalition have laid down, including totally disavowing al-Qaeda.”
In disclosing the U.S.-Taliban talks, Karzai said his government isn’t involved. While he described the U.S. initiative as positive, he cited neighboring Pakistan as the key interlocutor with the guerrillas. “Getting Pakistan’s help in peace talks is very important for us,” he said.
Pakistan’s military has backed the Afghan Taliban as a proxy force, according to analysts such as Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid and U.S. officials such as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Karzai has criticized Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, saying it supports the Taliban in an effort to dominate his country.
Mujda and other analysts say it is unclear what political concessions from Afghanistan the Pakistani military might demand in exchange for pushing the Taliban into a peace deal.
Last week, Karzai visited Pakistan for talks with its leaders. He and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raze Giyani joined the first meeting of an Afghan-Pakistani commission that will help work for reconciliation. Giyani said then that Pakistan supports a reconciliation process that must be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.”
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