U.S., Pakistan plan joint effort to boost peace talks with Taliban


Taliban fighters stand next to their weapons as they join the Afghanistan government during a ceremony in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province on Sept. 18, 2012. (NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
September 21, 2012

The United States and Pakistan are planning a joint effort to draw the Taliban toward peace talks in Afghanistan, an initiative that could help reconcile some militants and give Pakistan a say in the political future of its larger neighbor.

A joint commission, or “action group,” would help vet candidates for political rehabilitation, with a goal of helping Afghanistan frame a workable peace deal after U.S. and foreign forces leave the country.

Officials familiar with the previously undisclosed plan described it on condition of anonymity because it is not final and because some aspects of U.S. outreach to the Taliban are classified.

The planned joint vetting was among the main focuses of a nearly five-hour meeting last week between three senior U.S. officials and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, officials of both governments said. The session also covered plans to grant Taliban figures living in Pakistan “safe passage” to political talks.

“Whatever you call it, the roadmap . . . will have many aspects to determine who is reconcilable and who is not, how to then move once you determine they are reconcilable, [and] what should be on the table and what should not be on the table,” a senior Pakistani official said.

U.S. officials used similar language to describe the goal of the new partnership.

“It would look at who is reconcilable and who is not,” a U.S. official said, with Pakistan using its historical intelligence ties to Taliban elements to advise the U.S. and Afghanistan.

The U.S.-Pakistan vetting operation would be part of larger cooperation taking place among Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States despite crosscutting tensions among all three nations.

The cooperation comes amid street protests in Pakistan sparked by a film clip denigrating the prophet Muhammad posted on YouTube, and after a two-year roller coaster in U.S.-Pakistani relations that left both countries wary. Economic, political and military cooperation between the two countries has been scaled back.

Pakistan’s participation in the Taliban effort is a recognition that some political deal to end the Taliban’s 11-year insurgency is likely, or at least possible, after the bulk of foreign forces the country in 2014, officials said. Pakistan’s leaders acknowledge they have so far been on the margins of efforts to draw the Taliban into talks.

The movement’s top commanders, including Taliban chief Mohammad Omar, live in Pakistan.

The vetting idea is still in the planning stages and it was not clear whether it would involve Pakistani outreach directly to Taliban leaders living in or near the city of Quetta, and how the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate recently declared a terrorist group by the United States, would fit it.

“This will have to be a joint determination,” the Pakistani official said.

The Taliban does not appear headed for defeat anytime soon. Large stretches of southern and eastern Afghanistan still remain in the grip of Omar’s faction or the Haqqanis, and incipient peace talks with the Afghan government are inconclusive.

The Taliban walked away from talks with U.S. officials in March, saying the United States had reneged on several promises. An offer to open a Taliban political office in Qatar, where full peace talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government could be held, remains on the table. Plans to build goodwill by releasing five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are on hold for now.

Pakistan was suspicious of the Qatari effort, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai opposed it at the outset.

An internal Afghan effort to reach out to mid-level Taliban leaders appears to be more promising now, several U.S. and other officials said. The U.S.-Pakistani vetting operation could dovetail with the Afghan effort, they added.

“Our prerequisite in this is that is be visibly Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and that everybody else shares the responsibility” of helping to frame a viable political settlement, the Pakistani official said.

The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, led last Friday’s lengthy meeting with Zardari. White House and Pentagon officials accompanied Grossman.

Grossman’s primary assignment is to foster a peace deal that would leave Afghanistan less likely to return to chaos that fosters terrorism directed at the United States.

Any deal is likely to take years, far outlasting the current plans to end formal combat against the Taliban in 2014.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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