Head of Afghan peace council says Taliban is ready to talk

By Joshua Partlow and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 11:36 PM

KABUL - The head of Afghanistan's new peace council said Thursday that he believes that some members of the Taliban are ready to negotiate, while still describing contacts as in their early stages.

"We are taking our first steps," Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president, said in a news conference in Kabul.

"I believe there are people among the Taliban that have a message that they want to talk," he said. "They are ready."

Rabbani's comments echoed those of other Afghan and U.S. 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, despite the insurgent group's public denials of such meetings.

Some officials in Kabul have described the contacts, which stretch back years but appear to have intensified recently, as remaining scattered and sporadic. 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, who was attending a NATO meeting of foreign and defense ministers.

The substance of contacts with the Taliban so far remains largely shrouded in secrecy, even to members of the new peace council, which is eventually supposed to make policy on how to move forward. Recently, U.S. officials have appeared more enthusiastic about high-level talks with insurgents, to the point of facilitating the movement of Taliban leaders to Kabul for discussions, a senior NATO official said this week.

Skepticism persists among Afghan officials that Pakistan, which many view as exerting significant control over the Taliban leadership, will help further peace negotiations.

"I think any high-level [insurgents] will not be able to come here unless they have the full agreement of their supporters," Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said in an interview this week.

In Brussels, Clinton appealed to NATO countries to send more personnel to train Afghan forces.

"If we want to be credible when we announce at the Lisbon summit [in November] that a transition process in Afghanistan will begin next year, we need to show that we have eliminated the shortfall in the NATO training mission resources, so that Afghan national security forces can take the lead in providing for Afghanistan's own security," she said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists that he is "optimistic" about getting enough trainers. "I have received quite a number of positive and encouraging announcements" from countries offering additional personnel, he said, without providing specifics.

partlowj@washpost.com sheridanm@washpost.com

Sheridan reported from Brussels.

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