- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban officials have engaged in periodic, discreet contacts with Afghan and U.S. officials for months but are unwilling to move to formal peace negotiations until the U.S. agrees to a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, according to a Pakistani intelligence official and members of a newly formed Afghan peace council.

The White House said Wednesday that President Obama supports attempts by the Afghan government to open peace talks with Taliban leaders, but still wants the insurgents to renounce violence and their support of al Qaeda.

However, press secretary Robert Gibbs said the United States was not taking part in any such talks. “This is about Afghanistan,” he said. “It has to be done by the Afghans.”

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that secret talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan have begun between representatives of the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The Post quoted Afghan and Arab sources as saying they believe for the first time that Taliban representatives are fully authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban command council based in Pakistan, and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Nevertheless, other Pakistanis and Afghans familiar with the process insist all contacts have been limited to indirect message exchanges, using mediators who include former Taliban members. Those contacts were described as exploratory, with all sides trying to assess the other’s positions.

Most of those familiar with the contacts spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.

Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s main intelligence service who has had longtime ties to the Taliban, told the Associated Press that the insurgents have laid down three preconditions for formal negotiations — a timetable for a NATO withdrawal, release of all Taliban prisoners and a deal to drop the terrorist label which the religious movement was given after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

For their part, the Taliban have repeatedly denied any such contacts, saying they will not talk peace so long as U.S. and NATO troops remain in the country.

Still, several Pakistanis and Afghans insist that CIA officials have held clandestine meetings with top Taliban leaders, some at the level of the Taliban’s shadow Cabinet ministers. At least two rounds of meetings were held in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, according to a former Taliban member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears for his own safety.

He said the talks were held in the area between the towns of Peshawar and Mardan and included Qudratullah Jamal, the former Taliban information minister.

The CIA denied that any such meetings took place but could not say whether representatives of the U.S. government have met with the Taliban.

Last February, Mr. Karzai sent a small delegation of former Taliban members to Saudi Arabia to seek the kingdom’s help in kick-starting talks with the Taliban. But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom would not get involved in peacemaking unless the Taliban sever all ties with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network — a key U.S. demand.

One of the former Taliban members, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said unequivocally at the time that he could not negotiate on behalf of the Taliban. The meeting ended without any results.

Another complication facing any substantial peace negotiations is the role of Pakistan. Despite its role as a U.S. partner, Pakistan harbors Afghan Taliban members and nurtured the organization during the years before it seized control of the Afghan government in 1996.

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