- Associated Press - Monday, August 29, 2011

KABUL — Secret U.S. talks with the Taliban were making progress before Afghan officials, nervous that the negotiations would undercut President Hamid Karzai, scuttled them, Afghan and U.S. officials have said.

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

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

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

Collapse of the direct talks 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 talks also offered the prospect of a brokered agreement between the United States and the Taliban, one that would allow the larger reconciliation of the Taliban into Afghanistan political life to move forward.

In a series of interviews with diplomats, current and former Taliban, Afghan government officials, and a close childhood friend of Mr. Aga, the AP learned that Mr. Aga is hiding in Europe and is afraid to return to Pakistan in fear of 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 Mr. Aga, while alive, had disappeared. The United States will continue to pursue talks, the official said.

U.S. officials acknowledged the meetings after Mr. Karzai, who apparently fears being sidelined by U.S.-Taliban talks, confirmed published accounts about them in June.

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

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

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