State Department spokesman Michael A. Hammer on Monday declined to comment on the Afghan official’s assertion, saying the United States had a “broad range of contacts across Afghanistan and the region, at many levels. . . . We’re not going to get into the details of those contacts.”
The talks have proceeded on several tracks, including through nongovernmental intermediaries and Arab and European governments. The Taliban has made clear its preference for direct negotiations with the Americans and has proposed establishing a formal political office, with Qatar under consideration as a venue, according to U.S. officials.
An attempt to open talks with the insurgent group failed late last year when an alleged Taliban leader, secretly flown by NATO to Kabul, turned out to be a fraud. “Nobody wants to do that again,” a senior Obama administration official said.
Other earlier meetings between Afghan government representatives and Taliban delegates faltered when the self-professed insurgents could not establish their bona fides as genuine representatives of the group’s leadership.
But the Obama administration is “getting more sure” that the contacts currently underway are with those who have a direct line to Omar and influence in the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, or ruling council, he heads, according to one of several senior U.S. officials who discussed the closely held initiative only on the condition of anonymity.
The officials cautioned that the discussions were preliminary. But they said “exploratory” conversations, first reported in February by the New Yorker magazine, have advanced significantly in terms of the substance and the willingness of both sides to engage.
Rumors of the talks have brought a torrent of criticism in recent weeks from Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s political opponents, who say that he will ultimately compromise Afghan democracy. In one indication of U.S. eagerness to get negotiations moving, however, administration officials described the criticism in positive terms as evidence that Afghans were starting to take the idea of negotiations seriously.
The Taliban, one U.S. official said, is “going to have to talk to both the Afghans and the Americans” if the process is to proceed to the point that it would significantly affect the level of violence and provide what the Taliban considers an acceptable share of political power in Afghanistan.
Such an outcome is likely to be years away, officials said. They said that the United States has not changed its insistence that substantive negotiations be Afghan-led. “The Afghans have been fully briefed” on U.S.-Taliban contacts, an American official said, and “the Pakistanis only partially so.”