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New push for Afghan-Taliban peace talks gains momentum

  • Article by: ALISSA J. RUBIN and DeCLAN WALSH
  • New York Times
  • February 16, 2013 - 10:12 PM

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Suddenly, the effort to strike a deal with the Taliban is very publicly back on the front burner.

Frozen for months last year as another fighting season raged in Afghanistan, and as election-year politics consumed U.S. attention, diplomats and political leaders from eight countries are now mounting the most concerted campaign to date to bring the Afghan government and its Taliban foes together to negotiate a peace deal.

The latest push came early this month at Chequers, the country residence of the British prime minister, David Cameron, who joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan in calling for fast-track peace talks. Weeks earlier in Washington, Karzai met with President Obama and committed publicly to have his representatives meet a Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar, to start the process.

Yet so far the energized reach for peace has achieved little, officials say, except to cement a growing consensus that regional stability demands some sort of political settlement with the Taliban -- after a war that cost tens of thousands of Afghan and Western lives and nearly a trillion dollars failed to put down the insurgency.

Interviews with more than two dozen officials involved in the effort suggest a fast-spinning process that has yet to gain traction and seems to have little chance of achieving even its most limited goal: bringing the Afghan government and Taliban leadership together at the table before the bulk of the U.S. fighting force leaves Afghanistan in 2014.

"The year 2014 has begun to be seen as a magical date, both inside and outside Afghanistan," said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan national security adviser. "It's difficult to find what is realistic and what is illusion."

Different visions

That is not least because the major players -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban -- have fundamentally different visions of how to achieve a post-2014 peace, according to accounts of setbacks in the process.

For the Afghans, the simple act of considering what a peace deal might look like has inflamed factional differences that are still raw two decades after the country's civil war.

The Afghan High Peace Council, which Karzai has empowered to negotiate for his government, has put forward a document called "Peace Process Roadmap to 2015." While many Afghan leaders say they have not seen the proposal, those who have view it as outlining a striking number of potential concessions to the Taliban and to Pakistan. They include provisions for the Taliban's becoming a political party and anticipation that some of the most important government positions could be open to them, including provincial governorships, police chief jobs and cabinet positions.

Some Western commentators as well as Afghans view this as returning to the past or opening the door to a division of the country. Senior members of the powerful Tajik and Hazara factions, both of which suffered greatly under Taliban rule, charged that they had been left out of the deliberations. When they are asked about striking a peace deal, they make veiled references to a renewal of ethnic strife.

Change of heart

One factor fueling the peace drive is that Pakistan, long considered the Taliban's silent sponsor, professes to have had a change of heart. For more than a year, Pakistani generals and ministers have assiduously courted their traditional rivals in Afghanistan as part of a strategy that, they say, favors an inclusive democratic settlement after 2014 -- even one that does not include the Taliban's full return to power.

But Pakistan's biggest public gesture so far -- the release of 26 Taliban prisoners from jails, intended as a trust-building measure to help the peace process -- has been shadowed by the old mistrust and accusations of double-crossing. The Pakistanis refused Afghan demands to release the prisoners into Afghan custody, arguing that it would scare the Taliban away.

And hopes for Pakistani cooperation dimmed further Friday when Islamabad's most senior cleric pulled out of a meeting planned for March with Afghan clerics in Kabul, following disagreements over the role of the Taliban. Afghan senior clerics said they remain hopeful that the talks would be held and that the majority of Pakistani clerics would attend.

The most immediate obstacle to talks is the continuing standoff between Karzai and the Taliban. The insurgents refuse to deal with Karzai, whom they have branded as a U.S. "puppet." The president, in turn, recently reiterated his demand that the Taliban must recognize the legitimacy of his government and speak to the High Peace Council, which has representatives from many Afghan factions.

As the snows begin to melt in the high passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan, senior Afghan officials say, they will be watching the Taliban's moves closely to see whether attacks this year slow down, remain the same or accelerate. Since the Afghans believe strongly that Pakistan can at least modulate the Taliban, if the violence continues unabated or gets worse, it will be a signal that neither Pakistan nor the Taliban are really ready to talk about peace.

© 2014 Star Tribune