Taliban in talks with Karzai government

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By Karen DeYoung, Peter Finn and Craig Whitlock
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

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."

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


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