WASHINGTON — The Taliban categorically denied Wednesday that they're holding negotiations with the United States on a resolution to the decade-old war in Afghanistan, reiterating that they won't discuss a peace deal while any foreign forces remain in the country.
"Certainly, our country is considered occupied even if one foreign soldier remain (sic) on our soil," the main Afghan insurgent group declared in the English version of a statement published on its website, alemarah-iea.net. "This can't be acceptable and tolerable to any Afghan."
News reports that peace talks are underway are "baseless and dubious," it declared.
The statement renewed uncertainty about President Obama's strategy for withdrawing all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a process that starts this month with the withdrawal of 10,000 American troops by December 31.
Negotiating a political settlement is a key pillar of Obama's strategy for ending the war. But there has been no apparent progress in at least three meetings held since November 2010 in Germany and Qatar between U.S. diplomats and a former close aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Some U.S. officials question how much influence the interlocutor, Tayyeb Agha, still wields.
Obama and his top aides assert that conditions are ripe for negotiations, contending that the surge of 33,000 U.S. troops last year has turned the tide against the Taliban-led insurgency and that Afghan security forces will be ready to assume responsibility for security nationwide by the end of 2014.
However, the No. 2 U.S. military commander in Afghanistan conceded Wednesday that overall violence is at record levels with no sign of diminishing. Forty-five U.S. troops were killed in June, making it the deadliest month of the year, and this month at least eight coalition troops have been killed including one American.
While violence is down in areas where the U.S. added forces, it's up in places that were once relatively calm as Taliban fighters fled the surge troops.
Still, the commander, Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, insisted in a teleconference with Pentagon reporters that the surge had made indisputable gains against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
"The bottom line is we have destroyed their (the Taliban's) support bases and their supplies," Rodriguez said. "There is much intelligence that says they are having a tough time supplying themselves."
Rodriguez and other U.S. officials say they're not worried about the security situation because the U.S. surge troops will be replaced with 70,000 Afghan forces.
"Even as we pursue this transition to Afghan security responsibility, we are redoubling our efforts to pursue a peaceful end to this conflict," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told the U.N. Security Council Wednesday.
Efforts to kick-start talks with the Taliban also are being pursued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Afghan lawmakers and former senior insurgents. But many experts and some U.S. officials are dubious that a peace accord can be achieved — let alone implemented.
With the U.S. slashing its 100,000 forces amid growing public opposition to the war and Obama facing re-election next year, the Taliban have little incentive to negotiate, experts say.
The Taliban "don't want to go down that road because, as far as they are concerned, all this talk about negotiations shows how desperate the Americans and everyone else are" about pulling out, said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Middle East Institute.
Last month, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the United States and allies had had "preliminary" contacts with Taliban members, without specifying details.
In its statement — replete with grammatical and punctuation errors — the Taliban said that the only talks they've conducted with unnamed countries involved prisoner swaps. It cited the freeing of 21 South Korean Christian missionaries kidnapped and held for six weeks in 2007 and two French journalists released last week after 18 months in captivity, and said that "direct and indirect contacts" were taking place about other prisoners.
"The rumor about negotiation with America is not more than the talks aimed at the exchange of prisoners," it said.
The Taliban are holding a U.S. soldier, Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, of the 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, who was taken prisoner two years ago. They also captured a Canadian tourist reportedly named Colin Rutherford this year. The identities of other captives to whom the statement referred weren't known.
The Taliban said that no legitimate insurgent leader has held talks, and that the U.S. has been duped by imposters posing as interlocutors in order to win cash awards. That was an apparent reference to a Pakistani shopkeeper who engaged in talks with the Afghan government last year posing as a senior insurgent leader.
"This is because the Americans are so weary in the war of Afghanistan and are facing defeat, that everyone can pull fast on them while capitalizing on their precarious and miserable situation," said the statement, apparently meaning to use the expression "a fast one."
Rodriguez, the military commander, said that the drawdown would begin this month with the departure of two Army National Guard squadrons — Nebraska's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment, and Iowa's 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, totaling 800 troops — that won't be replaced.
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