- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan government has been in reconciliation talks for months with members of a Taliban faction closely tied to al Qaeda and responsible for lethal attacks on coalition forces and bombings inside the capital, Kabul, according to a member of the Afghan parliament.

The parliamentarian, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said President Hamid Karzai’s government had been in direct contact with Jalaludin Haqqani, the aging leader of the Haqqani network, which is based in Pakistan and is believed to have close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service. The network is being run by his son, Sirajuddin.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that three members of the Taliban’s leadership council, known as the Quetta shura, also have taken part in preliminary discussions with the Afghan government, according to an Afghan official and a former diplomat in the region. The newspaper said the White House and an Afghan who has participated in the discussions requested that the newspaper withhold the names of the three Taliban leaders plus a member of the Haqqani family who were involved in the talks — presumably to shield them from reprisal attacks.

Confirmation of talks with the Haqqani network would indicate that negotiations are being held with more than a handful of disaffected low-level to midlevel insurgents as the United States and its allies seek an end to the more than 9-year-old war.

While skeptical in the past, the United States last week expressed support for the Afghan government’s efforts to talk with senior members of the Taliban.

Mr. Karzai, meanwhile, has asked Pakistan to hand over 31 Taliban figures who have been detained in the neighboring country, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s No. 2 leader, who was arrested in February in a joint raid with the CIA, according to peace negotiators in Kabul.

The Taliban released a statement Tuesday saying no top leaders of the Taliban, known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, have been talking to the Afghan government. The statement was issued by Mullah Abdul Kabir, a member of the Taliban ruling council and rumored to be among the figures open to a peace deal.

“They mention names of a few members of the leadership, saying they have had contacts with them or at least shown willingness to initiate negotiation,” Mullah Kabir said in the statement. “The enemy has not produced any evidence despite many claims to indicate that the officials of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan were engaged in talks with them.”

U.S. officials long have said they didn’t expect the Taliban — the hard-line Islamic movement that harbored Osama bin Laden — to talk peace as long as the militants believed they were winning. The Taliban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States triggered the Afghan war.

That stance changed publicly last week when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed exploratory talks between the Afghan government and the militants. Top NATO commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, confirmed that coalition forces were providing safe passage to some top Taliban leaders who were talking to the Afghan government.

The new acceptance of reconciliation could be seen as an admission that the war is going badly. Or it may reflect the view of U.S. military commanders that NATO troops have damaged the insurgency following the surge of more than 30,000 U.S. forces ordered by President Obama.

Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, attributed an increase in contacts with individuals linked to the Taliban to stepped up military pressure that NATO and its Afghan allies were placing on the insurgents.

Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former foreign minister and confidant of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, also denied that top Taliban leaders were engaged in talks.

“There is no trust line between the U.S. and international community and the Taliban,” Mr. Muttawakil said Tuesday in an interview. “Because of this, the Taliban are not serious about talking.”

He demanded that the United States and its international partners release Taliban prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay and remove the names of Taliban figures from the U.N. sanctions list to build trust. Mr. Muttawakil said face-to-face talks would be too difficult right now. He suggested that if formal negotiations are eventually held, it would be better to hold them in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Germany.

Some analysts believe the detention of the Taliban figures, including some who were exploring reconciliation, was driven by Pakistan’s desire to influence any peace deal in Afghanistan.

A senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said Islambad has not been asked to assist in the talks and does not know the identities of the participants.

The arrests abruptly halted secret U.N. contacts with the insurgency at a time when the efforts were gathering momentum, according to Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat and the U.N.’s former envoy to Afghanistan. Mr. Eide said the discussions that he and others had with senior Taliban members began in the spring of 2009 and included face-to-face conversations in Dubai and elsewhere.

He played down reports of current negotiations.

“There have been contacts for years,” Mr. Eide said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “My feeling is that this is a lot of spin that the war strategy is working — that things are moving forward more than they are.”

Kathy Gannon reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.


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