- Associated Press - Monday, August 29, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — Direct U.S. talks with the Taliban had evolved to a substantive negotiation before Afghan officials, nervous that the secret and independent talks would undercut President Hamid Karzai, scuttled them, Afghan and U.S. officials told the Associated Press.

Featured prominently in the talks was the whereabouts and eventual release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, who was captured more than two years ago in eastern Afghanistan, according to a senior Western diplomat in the region and a childhood friend of the Taliban negotiator, Tayyab Aga.

The U.S. negotiators asked Aga what could be done to gain Bergdahl’s release. The discussion did not get into specifics but Aga discussed the release of Afghan prisoners at Guanranamo Bay, Cuba and in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field.

Published reports about the clandestine meetings ended the talks abruptly, and sent Aga into hiding.

Collapse of the direct talks between Aga and U.S. officials probably spoiled the best chance yet at reaching Mullah Mohammed Omar, considered the linchpin to ending the Taliban fight against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. The contacts were preliminary but had begun to bear fruit, Afghan and U.S. officials said.

Perhaps most importantly they offered the tantalizing prospect of a brokered agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban — one that would allow the larger reconciliation of the Taliban into Afghanistan political life to move forward. The United States has not committed to any such deal, but the Taliban wants security assurances from Washington.

In a series of interviews with diplomats, current and former Taliban, Afghan government officials and a close childhood friend of Aga, the AP learned Aga is hiding in Europe, and is afraid to return to Pakistan fearing reprisals.

The United States has had no direct contact with him for months.

A senior U.S. official acknowledged that the talks imploded because of the leak and that Aga, while alive, had disappeared. The U.S. will continue to pursue talks, the official said. Current and former U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks.

The U.S. acknowledged the meetings after Karzai, who apparently fears being sidelined by U.S.-Taliban talks, confirmed published accounts about them in June, but has never publicly detailed the content, format or participants.

The first was held in late 2010 followed by at least two other meetings in early spring of this year, the former U.S. official said. The sessions were held in Germany and Qatar, the official said.

The childhood friend of Aga‘s, who spoke to the AP on condition he not be identified because he feared retaliation, said Aga was in Germany. A diplomat in the region said Aga fled to a European country after his contacts with the United States were revealed.

The talks were deliberately revealed by someone in the presidential palace, where Karzai’s office is located, said a Western and an Afghan official. The reason was Karzai’s animosity toward the U.S. and fear that any agreement Washington brokered would undermine his authority, they said.

The AP sought comment from Karzai’s office but was referred to palace press department spokesman Hamid Elmi, who did not answer his phone during repeated calls.

Pakistan had also been kept in the dark about the talks, people knowledgeable about them said. An Afghan official with contacts with the Taliban said the insurgents decided not to tell Pakistan about the meetings with the United States.

Story Continues →