- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban denied Wednesday that the movement is planning direct talks with the Afghan government to end the 10-year-old war, while a leaked NATO report suggested the insurgents are confident they will regain power after international troops leave.

While both developments were setbacks to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to broker peace, his government got a boost from Pakistan’s top diplomat who declared her nation’s support for an Afghan-led reconciliation process.

“Our only prerequisite to be supportive of an initiative is that it should be Afghan-led. It should be Afghan-owned. It should be Afghan-driven and Afghan-backed,” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said at the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

While she didn’t mention the United States, Afghan officials have complained privately that the peace effort has so far been dominated by American efforts and talks with Taliban representatives. Washington insists it is only setting the stage, and any eventual talks must involve Karzai's government.

The Taliban were responding to widespread reports that Karzai's government was seeking direct talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia — a move seen as an attempt by the Afghan leader to take charge of the peace effort.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid rejected those reports as “baseless,” saying in a statement that exploratory talks between the insurgency and the U.S. and its allies have not yet reached the stage for negotiations.

“Before the negotiation phase, there should be trust-building between the sides, which has not started yet,” Mujahid said.

The Taliban calls the Afghan government a puppet regime. The insurgency, however, has agreed to set up a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar and has acknowledged having preliminary discussions with the Americans.

U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged Tuesday that to build trust with the Taliban, the United States may release several AfghanTaliban prisoners from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper told Congress that no decision had been made whether to trade the five Taliban prisoners, now held at Guantanamo Bay, as part of the nascent peace talks with the Taliban. He and CIA Director David Petraeus did not dispute that the Obama administration was considering transferring the five to a third country.

Karzai was angry that Qatar had agreed to host a Taliban political office without consulting his government, according to a senior Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. Karzai prefers Saudi Arabia or Turkey where he believes he would have the upper hand in guiding the talks, the official said. The Afghan government fears that the U.S., anxious to wrap up a decade in Afghanistan, will try to impose a political settlement with the Taliban, the official said.

Khar was the first high-level Pakistani official to visit Kabul since last fall when relations between the neighboring countries soured after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and former head of the government’s peace council. He was killed in his Kabul home Sept. 20, 2011 by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban. Afghan officials blamed the killing on insurgents based in Pakistan.

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul hailed Khar’s visit as a breakthrough toward better relations and said the region will find no permanent peace until Pakistan offers serious and honest cooperation.

The ministry also announced that Karzai would travel to Islamabad Feb. 16 and 17. During the visit, he is expected to push Pakistan to follow through on concrete steps Afghanistan wants Pakistan to take to facilitate the peace process, according to an Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate negotiations.

Khar’s visit to Kabul came on the same day that a classified NATO report was released, claiming that the Taliban believe they will return to power after the U.S.-led coalition ends its combat role in Afghanistan in 2014, NATO officials said. The captured Taliban fighters also believed they were receiving support from Pakistan and that they were doing well on the battlefield, the officials said.

Khar denounced the report, which was based on the interrogation of thousands of insurgent prisoners.

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