U.S. officials, experts: No high-level Afghan peace talks under way

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Despite news reports of high-level talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, no significant peace negotiations are under way in Afghanistan, U.S. officials and Afghanistan experts said Thursday.

These same experts said the reports, which appeared in a number of U.S. media outlets, could be part of a U.S. "information strategy" to divide and weaken the Taliban leadership.

"This is a psychological operation, plain and simple," said a U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's outreach effort.

"Exaggerating the significance of it (the contacts) is an effort to sow distrust within the insurgency, to make insurgents suspicious with each other and to send them on witch hunts looking for traitors who want to negotiate with the enemy," said the U.S. official. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Ali Jalali, a scholar at the National Defense University and a former Afghan interior minister who maintains close contacts with the Afghan government, said he knew of no significant peace negotiations.

"There is a desire (by the Afghan government and its foreign backers) for talks with the Taliban and others, but the situation is not ready for these talks yet," he told McClatchy. "There is a lot of smoke, but no fire."

News accounts have said the talks with the Afghan government were held in Kabul and that the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, facilitated travel for the Taliban from their sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The reports said the talks had deliberately excluded Mullah Mohammad Omar, the head of the Quetta Shura, the leadership council that controls Taliban forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan from the western Pakistani city of Quetta, and circumvented the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.

U.S. intelligence thinks that the ISI supports the Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, which Islamabad denies.

A Department of Defense spokeswoman said she could not comment on the allegation of an "information operation." She also would not say whether there had been high-level peace talks, stating: "That's really something for the Afghan government to discuss."

The Quetta Shura denied Thursday that senior council members had taken part in peace talks.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan refutes outright these false claims, neither has it sent any delegations for talks and neither does it intend to negotiate at a time when the country is under occupation," said a statement posted on the council's English-language website.

U.S. officials said there are talks in which mid- and low-level insurgent commanders and their fighters have switched sides to join local militias created under a U.S.-backed reintegration initiative.

There also have been meetings, some facilitated by coalition forces and other countries, between Afghan officials and insurgent leaders to explore ideas on the form and substance of possible negotiations, they said.

"I have had personal meetings with some Taliban leaders. Some of my colleagues have had meetings with the Taliban both in Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan," Karzai said in an Oct. 15 interview with al Jazeera English television news.

"But those contacts have been more countrymen to countrymen. That type of talks. Unofficial contacts that sometimes they initiated, that sometimes we initiated," he said.

U.S. intelligence officials have "some question" about whether the insurgent leaders participating in these contacts have any authority to engage in peace talks, said a second knowledgeable U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The contacts were "not Reykjavik (the site of U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations), the U.N. Security Council or the Paris peace talks (that ended the Vietnam War)," the official said.

U.S. officials and Afghanistan experts said insurgent leaders have no incentive at the moment to engage in serious talks. They pointed out that insurgents still hold sway over large swaths of Afghanistan despite sustaining significant losses in Army Gen. David Petraeus' intensified counterinsurgency drive and stepped-up night raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

"We have the impression that all of the commanders that have been taken out have been replaced quite quickly," said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a respected independent policy institute. On a scale of one to 100, Ruttig put progress on peace talks "at somewhere between one and two."

"That (psychological warfare) is exactly what it is," said a former senior U.S. official in touch with the White House. "Petraeus has been upping the attack on the Taliban, and trying to intimidate, and at the same time, reaching out : 'let's talk.'" The former senior official requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing ties with the Obama administration.

While publicity about peace talks is partly psychological maneuvering, the former senior official said that Petraeus' strategy of escalating attacks while expressing a desire for diplomacy "seems to me certainly worth trying." He added: "I don't know if it'll work."

Insurgents think that President Barack Obama's announcement last December that the 110,000 U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011 means that the United States is leaving Afghanistan and all they have to do is wait, according to experts.

Furthermore, they said, the Pakistani military remains unwilling to close down the Haqqani network or the Quetta Shura, seeing them as instruments for securing a government in Kabul that will forge closer ties with Islamabad than with Pakistan's its arch-rival, India.

"High-level (peace) talks cannot meaningfully occur without the tacit or explicit acceptance of the ISI," said ret. Army Col. Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University.

(John Walcott contributed)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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