- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

The United States and its allies are stepping up efforts to persuade Afghan insurgents to put down their arms by negotiating with representatives of Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban commanders and offering cash and jobs to low-level fighters, according to Pakistani, Middle Eastern and U.S. officials and analysts.

The efforts, coupled with an increased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, are meant to weaken the insurgency and promote a negotiated end to the region’s violence.

“The strategy is to peel away so many fighters” from the insurgent chiefs that they will be left like “floating icebergs and have no one left to command,” said Kenneth Katzman, an Afghanistan specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

Several Pakistani, Middle Eastern and U.S. officials said in interviews that Saudi and Pakistani officials, acting with tacit American encouragement, are talking with “second tier” Taliban leaders connected with Mullah Omar. The Washington Times reported recently that Mullah Omar has been hiding in the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi and was brought there with the knowledge of Pakistani intelligence.

“You’ve got a lot of players involved in the effort,” said a U.S. official with knowledge of the talks, “not just within the U.S. government, but foreign partners, too.”

The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, added: “U.S. intelligence isn’t the lead on talking to members of the Afghan Taliban who may be interested in discussing reconciliation. But when it makes sense, the [U.S.] intelligence community is brought in for its expertise, relationships and judgment.”

Such meetings were reported to have taken place in the Saudi holy city of Mecca in September 2008, but they continue elsewhere today.

Mr. Katzman said Qayyum Karzai, a brother of the Afghan president, participated in the 2008 talks. He also said there were meetings in January in Saudi Arabia and contacts in the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Pakistan, were the only countries that recognized the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

A Western diplomat based in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Pakistani and Saudi officials are using their “connections and influence within Afghan Taliban to elicit some meaningful way to end the deadlock.”

A senior Pakistani official who is familiar with the talks and also asked not to be named said that “the U.S. is trying to leverage the Taliban in order to find a resolution to the war in accordance with President Obama’s strategy.”

Saudi Embassy officials in Washington declined to confirm or deny the talks. But Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, said the Obama administration supports “efforts towards reconciliation with the Taliban as long as certain criteria are met.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out those criteria in a speech in July. “We and our Afghan allies stand ready to welcome anyone supporting the Taliban who renounces al Qaeda, lays down their arms, and is willing to participate in the free and open society that is enshrined in the Afghan Constitution,” she said.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who headed Mr. Obama’s first Afghanistan-Pakistan review, said such approaches “are worth exploring, but I would not expect to see tangible progress until the security situation changes” in Afghanistan.

“It’s highly unlikely that people will switch from the perceived winning side,” he said. “If you change the momentum on the battlefield and the Taliban is no longer seen as the winner, you may see the fractures come to the front.”

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