Taliban leaders said to be in Afghanistan peace talks
Extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of leadership, who are secretly leaving sanctuaries...
The New York Times
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Seattle Times news services
KABUL, Afghanistan — Extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of leadership, who are secretly leaving sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops, appear to represent the most substantive effort to date to negotiate an end to the 9-year-old war in Afghanistan, which began with a U.S.-led campaign to overthrow the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The discussions, some of which have taken place in Kabul, are unfolding between the inner circle of President Hamid Karzai and members of the Quetta shura, the leadership group that oversees the Taliban war effort inside Afghanistan.
Afghan leaders have also held discussions with leaders of the Haqqani network, considered to be one of the most hard-line guerrilla factions fighting here; and members of the Peshawar shura, whose fighters are based in eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban leaders coming into Afghanistan for talks have left their havens in Pakistan on the explicit assurance that they will not be attacked or arrested by NATO forces, Afghans familiar with the talks say. Many top Taliban leaders reside in Pakistan, where they are believed to enjoy some official protection.
In at least one case, Taliban leaders crossed the border and boarded a NATO aircraft bound for Kabul, according to an Afghan with knowledge of the talks. In other cases, NATO troops have secured roads to allow Taliban officials to reach Afghan- and NATO-controlled areas so they can take part in discussions. Most of the discussions have taken place outside Kabul, according to the Afghan official.
U.S. officials said last week that talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders were under way. But the ranks of the insurgents, the fact they represent multiple factions and the extent of NATO efforts to provide transportation and security to adversaries they otherwise try to kill or capture have not been previously disclosed.
The identities of the Taliban leaders are being withheld by The New York Times at the request of the White House and an Afghan who has taken part in the discussions. The Afghan official said that identifying the men could result in their deaths or detention by rival Taliban commanders or the Pakistani intelligence agents who support them.
The discussions appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan's leaders, who are believed to exercise a wide degree of control over the Taliban's leadership. The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan, which Karzai's government fears will exercise too much influence over Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw.
But that strategy could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis, who could undermine any agreement.
Mullah Muhammad Omar, the overall leader of the Taliban, is explicitly being cut out of the negotiations, in part because of his closeness to the Pakistani security services, officials said.
Afghans who have tried to take part in, or even facilitate, past negotiations, have been killed by their Taliban comrades, sometimes with the assistance of Pakistan's intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
"The ISI will try to prevent these negotiations from happening," the Afghan official said. "The ISI will just eliminate them," he said, referring to the people who take part.
Earlier this year, the ISI detained as many as 23 Taliban leaders residing in Pakistan after the intelligence service discovered the Taliban leaders were talking secretly with representatives of the Afghan government.
Many if not most of the leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani group are targets for death or capture. Many of the same individuals are on the U.N. "black list," which obliges governments to freeze their assets and prevent them from traveling.
A Pakistani cleric close to the Quetta shura and the Haqqani leadership said he was unaware of any face-to-face discussions with Afghan leaders.
But he said the Afghan government had recently sent out feelers to several Taliban commanders, with the proviso that Muhammad Omar be left out.
"The problem is, they want to exclude Mullah Omar,"the cleric said. "If you exclude him, then there cannot be any talks at all."
The Haqqani group is the namesake of Jalalhuddin Haqqani, a former minister in the Taliban government in the 1990s who presides over a Mafia-like organization based in North Waziristan, in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Haqqani network has sheltered several members of al-Qaida and maintains close links to Pakistan's security services.
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