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Panetta says Afghan insurgents show no real interest in reconciliation talks

By Peter Finn and Karen DeYoung
Monday, June 28, 2010; A05

CIA Director Leon Panetta said Sunday that U.S. officials have not seen "any firm intelligence" that insurgent groups in Afghanistan are interested in reconciliation, and he dismissed reports that a top militant leader is open to a Pakistan-brokered agreement.

"We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society," Panetta said on ABC's "This Week." "My view is that . . . unless they're convinced the United States is going to win and that they are going to be defeated, I think it is very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that is going to be meaningful."

Panetta was responding to reports that senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials are seeking to broker a deal that would usher the network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a major element in the insurgency in Afghanistan and an ally of al-Qaeda, into a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. More broadly, Panetta said none of the insurgent groups in Afghanistan has shown a real interest in talks.

The Obama administration has always maintained that the war will end with a political settlement rather than a military one. It has gradually warmed to the idea of negotiations with insurgent groups, but senior administration officials have warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan that Washington considers Haqqani's network off-limits. Any deal between the sides would drive a wedge between Karzai and the United States and would rehabilitate the Haqqani network, a longtime Pakistani asset.

Karzai has said that he will talk with any insurgent group about its grievances, but that any deal must include a commitment by fighters to give up arms, sever ties with al-Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution. His aides have held inconclusive meetings, within and outside Afghanistan, with representatives of two groups loosely linked under the banner of the Afghan Taliban: the Quetta shura led by Mohammad Omar and the Hezb-i-Islami.

On Sunday, television network al-Jazeera, citing unnamed sources, reported that Karzai recently held face-to-face talks with Haqqani, in the presence of Pakistan's army and intelligence chiefs. Karzai's office denied that, as did a Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who called the report "baseless and concocted with malicious intent."

Haqqani fighters, based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, operate primarily in eastern Afghanistan, where their attacks against coalition forces and Afghan civilians have grown more ruthless. Haqqani's father, the founder of the network, is a former Afghan warlord who fought occupying Soviet forces with U.S. and Pakistani help in the 1980s, battled the Taliban after the Soviet departure, then joined the Taliban when it took over the country in the mid-1990s.

President Obama said Sunday it is "too early to tell" whether reintegration and reconciliation efforts will succeed. "I think that we have to view these efforts with skepticism, but also openness," he said at a news conference at the close of the Group of 20 conference in Canada.

"The Taliban is a blend of hard-core ideologues, tribal leaders, kids that basically sign up because it's the best job available to them. Not all of them are going to be thinking the same way about the Afghan government, about the future of Afghanistan," Obama said in his most extensive remarks to date about the reconciliation process. "And so we're going to have to sort through how these talks take place."

He said conversations between the Afghan and Pakistani governments were a "useful step."

The remarks by Obama and Panetta came as a suspected CIA missile strike killed three militants in North Waziristan, thought to be the location of al-Qaeda's Pakistan headquarters. Panetta said that only 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives remain inside Afghanistan. Without explicitly acknowledging the CIA's drone campaign, he said U.S. actions were in compliance with domestic and international law.

He acknowledged that the fight in Afghanistan has proved "harder" and "slower than I think anyone anticipated."

Panetta also warned that being a U.S. citizen was no protection for those who conspire against the United States. He had been asked about Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American-born cleric, now in Yemen, who has been linked to terrorist attacks, including the Fort Hood shootings and the bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound plane last Christmas.

"Aulaqi is a terrorist and, yes, he is a U.S. citizen, but he is first and foremost a terrorist, and we are going to treat him like a terrorist," Panetta said when asked whether Aulaqi was on an assassination list. "We don't have an assassination list, but I can tell you this: We have a terrorist list, and he's on it." Intelligence and counterterrorism officials have said Aulaqi is on a target list of terrorists who can be killed.

Staff writer Karin Brulliard in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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