- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | The negotiations in Kabul between the Afghan government and the Taliban did little, and claims that they achieved a major breakthrough were inflated, participants and local analysts said.

The talks were merely an “intellectual and academic discussion,” said Saleem Safi, a Pakistani journalist and participant.

“What happened in the Serena were not negotiations so much as a regional studies association inviting some people from Pakistan to discuss the issue of negotiations,” said Soheil Sanjar, the Kabul-based publisher of the Hasht-e Sobh weekly newspaper.

The talks were organized by the East-West Institute, a Brussels-based think tank, and the government of Abu Dhabi, which held exploratory discussions between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban earlier this year. Saudi Arabia presided over similar talks last year and was involved in hosting Ramadan fast-breaking meals with Taliban representatives in September.

“There was no progress in these discussions because the parties to the conflict were not represented,” Mr. Safi said. “Even if there were Pakistani politicians and government figures, they were there in their personal capacity as analysts or regional specialists.”

Mr. Safi said he and another journalist in attendance would not have been allowed to stay if sensitive negotiations with armed opposition groups were taking place.

Meanwhile Sunday, CNN released the transcript of an interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in which he acknowledged that his government has had unofficial contacts with the Taliban “for quite some time.”

“We have been talking to the Taliban as countryman to countryman, talk in that manner,” Mr. Karzai told Larry King when the CNN host asked him about a recent Washington Post report on “secret high-level talks” between the two sides.

Mr. Karzai seemed to confirm that the talks were exploratory, saying they were not “a regular official contact with the Taliban with a fixed address, but rather, unofficial personal contacts.”

The interview will air Monday.

The talks began a few days after a 69-member official peace council was announced to guide peace efforts with the insurgents.

Speaking Oct. 7, the ninth anniversary of the U.S. attack against the Taliban, Mr. Karzai described the council as “the greatest hope for the people of Afghanistan.” The Afghan establishment hopes the body will help bypass the Pakistani army and reach out directly to Pashtun activists on the Pakistani side.

On Sunday, Burhanuddin Rabbani was elected chairman of the council. Mr. Rabbani is an ethnic Tajik whose government the Taliban overthrew in 1996 and subsequently led the Northern Alliance.

“Now that the peace council has come into existence, these talks will go on and will go on officially and more rigorously, I hope,” Mr. Karzai said Sunday.

Yet the prospect of an eventual reconciliation with the Taliban still has worried Afghanistan’s former Northern Alliance, ethnic-Tajik establishment sufficiently to spur it into action.

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