U.S.-led forces aiding reconciliation talks between Afghan government, Taliban

By Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 2:12 PM

U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan are helping to facilitate meetings between the Afghan government and members of the Taliban in the hopes of fostering political reconciliation, according to NATO officials.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday confirmed the military alliance's role but offered no details. A day earlier, a senior NATO official had said the alliance was granting safe passage to Taliban leaders traveling to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.

"It would be extremely difficult for a senior Taliban member to get to Kabul without being killed or captured if ISAF were not witting, and ISAF is witting," the official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive topic. ISAF is an acronym for the International Security Assistance Force, a coalition of troops from NATO members and other allies in Afghanistan. The official spoke in Brussels, where coalition members were being briefed on the war's progress.

In Kabul, the leader of a 70-member peace council appointed last week by Karzai said Thursday that he believes some members of the Taliban are ready to negotiate; he described the talks as being in their early stages. The group, which is to head negotiations, held its first formal meeting in Kabul.

"We are taking our first steps," former president Burhanuddin Rabbani told a news conference in Kabul. "I believe there are people among the Taliban that have a message that they want to talk. They are ready."

Rabbani's comments echo those of other Afghan and American officials in Kabul, who have said that members of the Taliban, including senior leaders or those purporting to represent them, have met with the Afghan government to discuss potential negotiations, even though the insurgent group's public statements have denied this is the case.

Some officials in Kabul have described these meetings, which have stretched back years but appear to have intensified recently, as remaining scattered and sporadic.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told journalists in Brussels on Thursday that it was too early to tell whether the Afghan reconciliation process would work.

"We're not yet ready to make any judgments about whether or not any of this will bear fruit on the reconciliation front," said Clinton.

Most recent discussions with the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and in third countries, have been described as informal and non-specific.

But after years of sporadic and inconclusive meetings, Afghan and Arab sources now dismiss the Taliban's public rejection of negotiations as posturing, and say that leading segments of the insurgency appear for the first time to be seriously exploring the possibility of a settlement.

The Obama administration is under increasing domestic pressure to end the costly war or show conclusive signs that its strategy is succeeding, and European allies have pressed the United States to be more open to negotiations. The administration has described itself as only an interested bystander to talks it has said must be led by Karzai's government.

U.S. and coalition demands for a settlement are the same as Karzai's: The Taliban must reject al-Qaeda, lay down its arms and declare allegiance to the Afghan constitution. Coalition officials have also said they insist on respect for "essential" human rights. The Taliban says publicly that there can be no peace until foreign military forces leave Afghanistan.

Peace council members said they still have no clear idea of their role in any negotiations. They acknowledged that contacts with the Taliban will continue outside the council, through Karzai's family or through Afghan intelligence officials, but said they hope to be more central to the process.

"Something is better than nothing," said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a council member and the Taliban's former representative to the United Nations. In an inaugural meeting last week, Karzai stressed to the council that it would be independent and that the government would support its decisions, three members said.

Some Afghans have criticized Karzai's choice of former president Rabbani as chairman of the body. Ousted during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, Rabbani is considered a bitter foe of the group and an unlikely mediator.

But council members said they think that Karzai worries that reconciling with the largely Pashtun Taliban could antagonize former leaders of the Northern Alliance - composed primarily of northern ethnic groups whose U.S.-aided forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001 - and lead to civil war.

"There were a lot of protests" about Rabbani, Mujahid said. "But I think it is okay, because he is also a side of the problem, of the conflict."

Karzai, Mujahid said, did not want "another armed opposition to be created as a result of the reconciliation process."

Although many have applauded the prospect of negotiations, former Northern Alliance military and political leaders, including former senior government officials ousted by Karzai after they objected to negotiations, have grown increasingly uneasy over the prospect of substantive talks that could give the Taliban a role in the government.

Some coalition partners view these rumblings as ominous and in recent weeks have discussed how to avoid the mirror image of what happened in 2001. Although Pashtuns make up more than 40 percent of the Afghan population, they were left largely outside the Western-backed, post-Taliban power structure, leading to a sense of disenfranchisement that swelled Taliban ranks.

deyoungk@washpost.com whitlockc@washpost.com

Whitlock reported from Brussels. Correspondents Joshua Partlow in Kabul and Mary Beth Sheridan in Brussels contributed to this report.

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