The Obama administration will resume peace talks with the Taliban as soon as Afghan President Hamid Karzai formally blesses the negotiations, according to senior administration officials who indicated that the process could be underway within weeks.
Marc Grossman, the senior U.S. diplomat who shepherded a series of secret U.S. meetings with the insurgents last year, will meet with Karzai late next week to ensure that he is on board, officials said.
“If Karzai were to tell [the Obama administration] to go ahead, then we’d start talking again,” said one of two officials who discussed the secret negotiations on the condition of anonymity.
A tentative U.S.-Taliban deal, including the transfer of five Afghan detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison to Qatar and an insurgent renunciation of international terrorism, collapsed in December when Karzai refused to go along with it.
There have been no meetings with the insurgents since then. Although all parties have publicly said that they agree to one element of the deal — the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar — “we need now to make it real,” one official said.
Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani, for the first time acknowledging Qatar’s support for the arrangement, said Wednesday that his government welcomed “any opportunity” to defuse tension in the region. Thani spoke after a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The administration, which has said that negotiations must be “Afghan-led,” insists that its talks with the Taliban are only a preliminary effort to build confidence before actual negotiations over Afghanistan’s future can begin between the insurgents and the Karzai government.
One hurdle is that the Taliban prefers to talk to the United States and is “not willing to sit down with the Afghan government’,” one official said. “Our job is to see if we can break through that door.” Karzai has been under pressure from domestic opponents of negotiations to stand firm against the talks.
The officials provided an overview of how the talks have proceeded and where they go now.
Officials remain far from certain that the Taliban leadership is seriously interested in a political settlement. “There is an increasing number of Taliban who are tired of having the hell beat out of them,” one said. “I think they want to stop.” But, at the same time, “I imagine there are going to be splits,” the official said. “Some are going to want to talk, some are going to want to fight.”
Late last year, the U.S. intelligence community assessed that both military and diplomatic success were unlikely before December 2014, the date that President Obama and NATO allies have set for withdrawal of all combat troops from Afghanistan.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, was said to be so angered by the recent National Intelligence Estimate that he wrote a blistering formal dissent.
The officials said combat against the insurgents would continue and described what they called a “holistic” approach in which diplomatic progress was not possible without gains on the civilian and military fronts.
Although ground commanders have been skeptical of negotiations, a senior military official said that all wars “end in a political process” and that “this one is no exception.” He described progress thus far as “getting the car out of the garage” in preparation for “a difficult journey ahead.”
An official said meetings with Mohammed Tayeb al-Agha, an aide to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, began in November 2010. To convince themselves that Agha had authority from the top Taliban leadership, “we tried to develop questions,” the official said, “tests, if you will, to see if he could receive a question, seek an answer from people senior to him and then stick with it.”
Agha, the official said, has been “shown on a number of occasions to accurately reflect the leaders” of the organization. “He is very consistent in what he seeks and how he seeks it.” The last meeting, in Qatar, was in October.
Throughout the process, the administration briefed Karzai and congressional leaders, officials said, particularly as they neared tentative agreement on confidence-building measures.
Among those measures, the United States asked for a public Taliban renunciation of international terrorism — in essence, a repudiation of al-Qaeda — and a separate statement of support for democracy in Afghanistan.
The Taliban wanted an office outside Afghanistan where they could operate beyond the supervision of their hosts in Pakistan, the officials said. The Americans said they considered the neutral location a place where the insurgents could begin talking to the Afghan government.
The insurgents also presented a list of five Guantanamo detainees, all of whom held positions in the Taliban government in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Human rights organizations have said that several of them were responsible for severe abuses, although U.S. officials said they have ascertained that the militants were not involved in killing Americans.
The five were to be transferred to house arrest in Qatar, a move that would require Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta to certify to Congress that they would not be released and would not pose a threat to the United States. Qatar also would agree not to transfer them onward to another location, including Afghanistan.
The final conversations, before Karzai squelched the deal, were over “sequencing,” one of the officials said. “Who goes first? What do they say?”