washingtonpost.com
Making effort toward peace with Taliban

By Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 21, 2010; A13

Senior administration officials briefed President Obama on Wednesday about the Afghan government's accelerating push for peace with the Taliban, as several streams of potential negotiations emerged.

In addition to discussions in and around Kabul being facilitated by coalition forces, a Taliban delegation traveled to Saudi Arabia early this month to seek Saudi sponsorship of talks with the Afghan government, sources said. Taliban representatives also sought to hold a meeting near Kandahar, which is in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan and close to the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership is located.

After a 90-minute session on Afghanistan and Pakistan with his war cabinet in the White House Situation Room, Obama met with a delegation of senior Pakistani officials who are in Washington for talks about the future scope of U.S-Pakistan relations, a partnership whose strength is essential to the success of the Afghan war.

The administration plans this week to announce an increase in military aid to Pakistan, even as NATO and Afghan officials have urged its military to take more aggressive action against insurgent safe havens and have accused Pakistan's intelligence service of hindering the nascent talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai.

The White House issued a statement after the meeting saying that Obama will not visit Pakistan during his trip to Asia in November, which will include an extended stop in India, Pakistan's archrival. Instead, it committed Obama to travel to Pakistan next year and said he would welcome Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Washington.

Senior administration officials concluded in last fall's Afghan strategy review that the Taliban could not be defeated as a political movement, only weakened as a military force. Since then, they have emphasized that the war will have a "political" end, and Karzai has moved to solidify discussions with Taliban figures that have been sporadic for the past several years.

'Wary' of credentials

Although earlier discussions foundered because of government uncertainty about the status of individual Taliban representatives within the insurgency, more recent encounters have been depicted as including high-level Taliban members, even if the talks remain preliminary, according to Afghan, Arab and U.S. sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"U.S. intelligence is wary of who some of these commanders are and whether they have the ability to actually influence the course of the conflict," a senior congressional aide said of administration briefings on Capitol Hill. "Some of these contacts will not come to mean much. But others might."

Intelligence officials have long depicted the insurgency as a "syndicate" of various Pakistan-based groups, including the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, that closely coordinate their activities. But Afghan sources said they increasingly see divisions within those groups, particularly the Quetta Shura.

An administration official familiar with the meetings said on Wednesday that "there is no evidence" that Karzai is talking to officials "at the highest levels" of the Haqqani network - which the United States views as unlikely to reconcile and as particularly close to the Pakistani intelligence service - or with with Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. But the official said the administration is not vetting people with whom the Afghan government is speaking.

"We have not looked at individual Taliban and said, 'This person cannot fit into the standards that have been set out,' " the official said. "From our perspective, if it is the case that the Afghans think there are Taliban out there they can reconcile with, that's for them to work out."

At the National Security Council meeting last month, Obama asked for a detailed assessment of the political track, which is taking place alongside sharply escalating military action against the insurgents on the ground in Afghanistan. Over the past several weeks, the administration publicly blessed Karzai's initiative, and senior officials confirmed the talks. U.S. and other coalition military commanders on the ground have ensured the safe passage of Taliban leaders for discussions in and around Kabul.

Saudis reply

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition military commander in Afghanistan, said last week that "several very senior Taliban leaders . . . have reached out to the Afghan government at the highest levels, and also in some cases have reached out to other countries involved in Afghanistan." The discussions, he said, were "preliminary" and "certainly would not rise to the level of being called negotiations."

Two senior members of the Quetta Shura traveled to Saudi Arabia this month carrying a letter from a top Shura official confirming their status and asking the Saudi government to sponsor talks with the Afghan government, sources said. The Saudis replied that although informal discussions could be held there, as they have been in the past, they would grant no formal status to the effort until the Taliban complied with certain "redlines," including renunciation of violence, rejection of al-Qaeda and allegiance to the Afghan constitution. The U.S. and Afghan governments have set the same prerequisites for serious negotiations.

An Afghan source attributed dissention in the Taliban ranks to Pakistan's efforts to maintain a tight hold on the insurgent leadership as it tries to influence the shape of any negotiated peace.

Many in the Afghan government remain highly suspicious of Pakistan's role. The Obama administration has used both carrots and sticks with Pakistan, increasing aid and cooperation while warning the Pakistanis to sever their ties with the insurgents and move forcefully against them.

The administration is holding a three-day "strategic dialogue" with top Pakistani officials in Washington this week, the third such session this year designed to bring Pakistan closer to U.S. policy aims. Discussions center on distribution of a $7.5 billion five-year economic and development assistance package as well as more than $300 million in aid that the administration has contributed to disaster efforts after recent floods there.

The administration plans to ask Congress to approve $2 billion in financing this year for Pakistani equipment purchases in this country. Spread over five years, that amount would provide an increase of about one-third to current annual financing of about $300 million. Overall military assistance to Pakistan in fiscal 2010 totaled about $1.9 billion.

wilsons@washpost.com deyoungk@washpost.com

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