Taking a Risk With Taliban Negotiations, Even if the Talks Are Real This Time

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Taking a Risk With Taliban Negotiations, Even if the Talks Are Real This Time

Post by ToddS on Sun Jun 26, 2011 3:20 pm

Taking a Risk With Taliban Negotiations, Even if the Talks Are Real This Time

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

“The Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement,” President Obama said at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Thursday.

By STEVEN LEE MYERS and MARK MAZZETTI
Published: June 25, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s strategy for gradually ending the war in Afghanistan relies heavily on peace talks with the Taliban. But those talks have hardly begun, and even some administration officials acknowledge that the odds of success are slim.

Among the many reasons: It is not clear that the Taliban want to negotiate, or who even represents the organization. The Afghan president has distanced himself from the talks, raising doubts about whether the country’s leaders would be open to a reprise of Taliban involvement in the political process.

And Pakistan, the vital third leg of negotiations because of its ties to the Taliban, is increasingly a wild card because of recent strains with the United States over the drone assaults on terrorist suspects inside Pakistan.

Mr. Obama told soldiers at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Thursday that “because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement, which ultimately is going to be critical for consolidating that country.”

So far, however, those signs are hazy at best, according to officials and diplomats.

American officials have participated in three meetings this year with an English-speaking Afghan who was once a personal assistant to the renegade Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Those meetings, in Germany and Qatar, appear to have accomplished little more than confirming the man’s identity, and perhaps not even that, according to officials familiar with the talks, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss the secret talks.

Adding another layer of complexity to the already murky effort, the English-speaking Afghan, Tayeb Agha, who was an aide to Mullah Omar during the Taliban’s rise to power, was arrested by Pakistani authorities last year and then released, leading American officials to assume that he is negotiating on behalf of the Taliban with the blessings of the Pakistani authorities.

“We’re at that stage where it’s very confusing,” one senior administration official said, adding that the meetings could not even be called “talks” at this stage, let alone “peace talks.”

The wariness in part reflects the fact that the administration has been badly embarrassed by previous diplomatic efforts. An Afghan was given substantial sums of cash last year and was flown on a NATO aircraft in the belief that he was a Taliban envoy, but he turned out to be an impostor.

Even so, the renewed diplomatic push signals a significant shift in Mr. Obama’s strategy since he came to office in 2009 and increased American forces in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000 troops, from 34,000, in an effort to crush a resurgent Taliban insurgency.

While the military has secured parts of the country and bolstered the Afghan government’s security forces, the administration now recognizes that a final American withdrawal depends on a political settlement with the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement equated closely with the murderous ideology of Al Qaeda. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were orchestrated by Al Qaeda under the Taliban’s protection.

The administration has imposed significant conditions for any reconciliation with the Taliban. The movement’s leaders must disarm, sever ties with Al Qaeda’s remaining leadership, recognize the government in Afghanistan and accept the country’s Constitution, including basic rights for women, who were severely repressed when the Taliban governed the country in the 1990s.

It is uncertain whether the Taliban or even parts of its leadership are willing to accept such conditions, and many experts are deeply skeptical.

“There really can’t be a deal on the core red lines, because that’s what red lines are,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of the conditions, using the diplomatic term for nonnegotiable demands.

The diplomatic effort is being led by Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard C. Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan after Mr. Holbrooke died in December.

Mr. Grossman has not been directly involved in the initial contacts with the Taliban envoy. That work has been handled by Frank Ruggiero, a Grossman deputy, and Jeff W. Hayes, an official of the Defense Intelligence Agency who is working on the National Security Council, one official said.

Mr. Grossman has participated in two meetings with senior officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first, coincidentally, took place in Pakistan the day after the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a villa in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

That raid badly soured relations between the United States and Pakistan, threatening to turn the initial diplomatic forays with the Taliban into collateral damage. Pakistan was once the Taliban’s patron, and it maintained links to the organization’s leaders even after the government in Afghanistan was toppled in 2001.

Mr. Grossman; Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin of Afghanistan; and Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, have since met again in Kabul and are scheduled to do so again next week.

Another step to entice the Taliban into the political process occurred last week when the United States won approval at the United Nations Security Council for a resolution that separated the Taliban from Al Qaeda on the terrorist blacklist that was the basis for international sanctions after 9/11.

The resolution creates a process for removing Taliban leaders from the list, including some who have already broken with the movement and joined President Hamid Karzai’s government. American officials hope the prospect of being freed from sanctions will encourage others to abandon the insurgency.

“With Bin Laden dead and Al Qaeda’s remaining leadership under enormous pressure, the choice facing the Taliban is clear: Be part of Afghanistan’s future or face unrelenting assault,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday in testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “They cannot escape this choice.”

Some have questioned the wisdom of the administration’s new strategy.

“I don’t think it’s productive to talk to the Taliban to begin with because they have every incentive to have us leave,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University who was an assistant to Mr. Holbrooke as special envoy to the region until earlier this year.

Another question, he and others noted, is Mr. Karzai’s commitment to the process.

Last week, he acknowledged the talks but said the United States, not his government, was leading them. He went on to angrily criticize the international military operation that brought him to power.

Thom Shanker contributed reporting.


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