Few see reason to take rumors of Taliban talks seriously

KABUL, Afghanistan — Despite a flurry of proposals to launch talks on ending the war in Afghan, leaders of the Taliban insurgency have yet to show any serious interest and instead are pressing their demands to oust all U.S. forces and establish an Islamist state.

With no apparent coordination, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, departing U.N. special representative Kai Eide and members of the Afghan parliament have launched separate initiatives in recent days, allowing the Taliban to choose the forum for talks if and when they decide to come to the table.

Eide's meeting in Dubai with a low-ranking Taliban commander sometime this month came in for criticism Saturday by Afghan politicians and Western military officials, who disparaged the attempt to launch a process by seeing at best a minor official.

Eide was aiming high, "but instead he saw a peon," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a member of Afghanistan's parliament who closely follows the issue. "It was a very brief meeting. The man was a 'go-fer' of some sort."

The meeting apparently took place as Eide was en route to London for Thursday's international conference on Afghanistan, where the issue of reconciliation with the Taliban was discussed.

No one has yet identified the Taliban official who met with Eide or his rank, but the Taliban's Leadership Council in a statement Saturday said it "refutes the rumors...about negotiations between the Islamic Emirate, and U.N. special envoy, Kai Eide."

Neither the U.N. nor the U.S. Embassy in Kabul would comment publicly on Eide's trip. Privately, a senior Western military official called the effort "freelancing" and suggested Eide was trying to secure his legacy after coming under severe criticism for taking a hands-off approach to fraud-tainted Afghan presidential elections last August.

Michael Semple, a European diplomat whom Karzai expelled from Afghanistan two years ago for supposedly unauthorized contacts with the Taliban, said it looked like Eide was "trying to leverage" the U.N. into the talks process.

"I believe that international and Taliban positions are reconcilable, so political dialogue can be helpful," Semple said. "But it is probably going to require quite a bit of political dialogue before anyone makes a decisive move."

Eide's diplomatic foray overshadowed Karzai's own initiative at the London conference, where he asked Saudi Arabia to mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

"We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers who are not part of al Qaida or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution," Karzai told the conference.

But Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said his country would talk to the Taliban only if they first severed ties with al Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

"Saudi Arabia has no connection with the Taliban," he said. "We cut connections ages ago, when they started to give sanctuary to Bin Laden, and we haven't renewed them."

In 2008, Saudi Arabia hosted a secret meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban that produced no results. Western diplomats now regard that encounter as essentially a stunt by Karzai, carefully leaked to the media to bolster the Afghan president's image as a peace-maker.

Ten Afghan parliamentarians also held a session in the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean last weekend. The meetings included four supporters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads an insurgent faction, and several scholars and clerics with close ties to the Taliban.

It was the third such informal exchange in the past year, and the participants actually registered progress by agreeing on an agenda for future talks — including a plan to discuss ways all could support parliamentary elections expected to take place later this year.

The Taliban's decision to boycott and disrupt presidential elections last August opened the way to massive fraud mostly by supporters of Karzai. A Taliban and Hekmatyar endorsement of the upcoming elections could mark the beginning of a real reconciliation.

The United States remains uncomfortable with talking to the Taliban's high command. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Eide's meeting was purely a personal initiative. It "is not going to be part of our efforts going forward."

Clinton later told National Public Radio that negotiations are "not going to happen with Mullah Omar and the like."

Similarly, the Taliban is wary of negotiating with U.S. and U.N. officials.

A former Pakistani official, who is in touch with the Taliban, said: "I am sure that Mullah Omar has not formally authorized anyone to negotiate with the U.S., the United Nations or others. So there aren't authorized representatives to talk to."

A retired Pakistani intelligence official, Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar, known as Colonel Imam, said that those who went to meet Eide were "not part of the Taliban shura of 35 people". The shura is the group's leadership council.

"The people who went to Dubai don't have any major role under Mullah Omar," said Tarar, who first met Omar in the 1980s and became close to him when the Taliban stormed to power in the mid-90s.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Nooruddin Bakhshi contributed)


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