Afghan-Taliban talks focusing on site, safe passage for negotiations

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 2:44 AM

KABUL - Recent meetings between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government have focused on establishing a site for more formal negotiations on the war, as well as guarantees of safe passage for participants, according to the head of Afghanistan's new peace council.

In an interview Friday evening, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president chosen to chair the committee to foster peace talks, said a government official had told him the Taliban representatives offered to provide security if the talks were to be on their turf - presumably Pakistan - and asked for security if meetings were in Kabul or a third country.

"I think this is one of the best opportunities we have had for talks," Rabbani said.

Although there has been some contact between Afghan officials and the Taliban for years, persistent reports of recent behind-the-scenes meetings suggest that the prospect for more-serious negotiations is growing.

The details of the Afghan government's communications with the Taliban remain largely secret. But senior NATO officials have said this week that the U.S.-led alliance has helped Taliban leaders travel to Kabul to meet with the Afghan government. On Friday, NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, confirmed that assistance, according to wire service reports.

"In certain respects we do facilitate that," he said, speaking in London. He added, "It would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul if [the coalition] were not willing and aware of it and therefore allowing it to take place."

Rabbani, who would not identify which insurgents are taking part in the meetings, described the discussions as being in their earliest stages, as have other U.S. and Afghan officials. But he said some insurgents appear willing to try to find a political settlement to the war and that greater international support for negotiations has hastened the process.

"The international community now are showing more willingness, and they're more interested, and the countries in the region are more interested. These kinds of things will help the process," he said. "What I think is most important is building trust among each other."

Rabbani, who was ousted as president in the 1996 Taliban takeover, said President Hamid Karzai has told him he is committed to pushing for peace talks.

"He said: 'I'm ready for negotiations. I'm ready to find a political solution to the problem, not a military one,' " Rabbani said. In the past, Afghan officials "were not interested in the political solution."

The peace council, made up of about 70 prominent Afghans, was formed this month to draft policy on how to proceed with negotiations. The group has met just a few times and is still hashing out its management structure. If Taliban leaders gave a signal that they were serious about talks, a small team from the peace council would be delegated to meet with them, Rabbani said, adding that the insurgent representatives involved should be protected.

"They should feel that when they are negotiating, it doesn't mean that they are going to be destroyed. And the government should also not assume the negotiations won't achieve anything," he said.

Rabbani said Karzai's government has already met with members of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, an insurgent faction that Afghan officials say is heavily influenced by Pakistani intelligence agencies and the least likely to reconcile with the Afghan government.

Publicly, the Taliban has rejected the prospect of negotiations and described the reports of secret meetings as propaganda. Its long-standing condition for peace talks is that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

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