- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Taliban must renounce terrorism and embrace peace talks that include the Afghan government, if the militants want to restart negotiations with the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

The Taliban last week suspended the peace process and blamed the U.S. for the delay.

Mrs. Clinton said the Taliban must “make unambiguous statements distancing themselves from international terrorism and committing to a process that includes all Afghans” in order to advance peace efforts.

“The Taliban have their own choice to make,” she said after meeting with Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul at the State Department.

The U.S. and Afghan governments have called on the Taliban to renounce ties with al Qaeda terrorists, disarm and respect the Afghan Constitution.

Mrs. Clinton said the Obama administration supports a reconciliation process that is “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned.”

“Our only goal is to open the door for Afghans to sit down with other Afghans and to work out the future for their country,” she said.

Sources close to the militants said one reason the talks were derailed was because Washington has failed to meet a Taliban demand for the release of five high-value detainees from U.S. custody at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Taliban also opposes U.S. calls for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government to be part of the peace process.

The Taliban refuses to talk to the Afghan government, which it refers to as a U.S. “puppet.”

The Taliban had said it would open an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks, and Mr. Rassoul will travel there in the first week of April on a two-day visit to discuss the future on the stalled peace talks.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Rassoul, meanwhile, expressed confidence that a U.S.-Afghan security pact could be finalized either before or at a NATO summit on Afghanistan in Chicago in May.

The pact has been held up by differences over night raids by NATO troops on terrorist suspects.

U.S. military officials say the raids have disrupted Taliban networks, but Afghans say the raids are culturally insensitive, generate ill will against the U.S. troops and trample on Afghan sovereignty.

The Karzai government wants Afghan security forces to take the lead in those raids and wants U.S. and NATO forces to shift to a supporting role. It is looking to the United States to provide assistance in the form of helicopters and intelligence.

The Karzai government also wants to wield a veto over nighttime raids, if the target is someone it considers a low-level Taliban commander or if the risk of collateral damage is high.

Earlier this month, U.S. and Afghan officials moved closer to signing the strategic partnership pact when they reached an agreement on the handover of military prisons to Afghan control.

The next meeting to discuss the agreement will be held in Kabul on Thursday.

“These are complicated issues, but we are resolving them,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Rassoul’s meeting was their first since a shooting spree, said to have been done by an Army staff sergeant, who is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in southern Kandahar province this month.

Mr. Rassoul said a “swift and transparent” investigation and the punishment of those involved would “greatly reinforce the Afghan people’s confidence in the existing strong friendship and partnership with the United States.”

The two officials also discussed the accidental burning of Korans by U.S. troops at a military base in Afghanistan last month, as well as the transition of security responsibilities to Afghans by 2014.

President Obama wants to pull all U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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