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Taliban in high-level talks with Karzai government, sources say

By Karen DeYoung, Peter Finn and Craig Whitlock
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 10:36 AM

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."

Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, said Wednesday that "negotiations, in a substantial way, have never happened."

"There have been contacts, initiated sometimes by the Taliban themselves, at different levels," he said. But, he added, the exchange "remains at the level of contacts, because negotiations is a term that involves people talking about their conditions, different things related to a settlement."

On Thursday, Karzai will inaugurate the first meeting of the government's new "high peace council," a group of about 70 Afghans that is intended to form policy on how to pursue negotiations with the Taliban. Omer said there will be "no backdoor negotiations" outside the work of this group because "we do not want to undermine the high peace council."

A half-dozen sources directly involved in or on the margins of the secret talks agreed to discuss them on the condition of anonymity. All emphasized their preliminary nature, 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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