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Originally published Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 9:00 PM

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Taliban, Afghan foes meet in Paris for talks

The talks, which began Thursday, have been touted as the first time the Taliban have sat down with their former enemies in Afghanistan’s old Northern Alliance.

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PARIS — A year that began with hope that the Taliban were ready to start talking peace is ending with a final initiative — informal talks outside Paris among Afghanistan’s competing factions, including extremists — that, if anything, exemplifies how little progress has been made in 2012 toward opening negotiations to end the war.

The talks, which began Thursday and are to last two days, have been touted as the first time the Taliban have sat down with their former enemies in Afghanistan’s old Northern Alliance, a collection of militias that fought Taliban rule in the 1990s and eventually helped the United States oust the Islamist movement. Afghan government peace negotiators were also attending, as were representatives from Hezb-e-Islami, an insurgent faction independent of the Taliban.

But going into the meetings, the Taliban and many old Northern Alliance leaders were clear about their lack of expectations. Abdullah Abdullah, an opposition politician and former presidential candidate who draws much of his support from Afghanistan’s north, said the meetings were “not by any chance a breakthrough.”

The talks, closed to the media, were meant to offer participants an informal occasion to “project themselves toward the horizon of 2020,” said Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, the Paris-based research group that organized the meetings.

The Afghans in attendance have come on a personal basis, Grand said.

A few French defense and foreign-affairs officials also were participating, he said, although the French, who recently pulled their combat forces from Afghanistan, said the meetings did not represent an effort to open formal talks. Philippe Lalliot, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, described them as an “academic seminar.”

Abdullah, the opposition politician, opted to remain in Kabul and sent lesser-known members of his party, the National Coalition of Afghanistan, to attend instead. A rival opposition group, the National Front of Afghanistan, which is also made up largely of old Northern Alliance leaders, was sending two of its top leaders to Paris.

Abdullah and others among the old Northern Alliance nonetheless held out the possibility that the talks could lead to more.

The Taliban “will come there and they will make their own decisions clear,” Abdullah said in Kabul. “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I don’t want to raise expectations out of the meeting.”

The small Taliban delegation in Paris was being led by Shahabudin Delawar, who is expected to be one of the insurgents’ negotiators should peace talks ever begin in earnest. But neither Delawar nor any other Taliban representatives had gone to Paris to discuss the stalled peace process, said Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents.

Rather, Delawar’s sole task was “to shed light on our stances and explain our official position and policies to the international community,” Mujahid said. “We want to explain it directly through our own official representatives to the international community, while in the past our position has been presented by the enemies, who were trying to display a wrong image.”

He did not elaborate on what those positions might be. The Taliban have repeatedly said they would not negotiate directly with the government of President Hamid Karzai, whom they deride as a puppet of the United States.

The Taliban suspended preliminary talks with the United States in March after the Obama administration failed to push through a proposed prisoner swap, which was to be the first in a series of confidence-building measures. The exchange would have traded five insurgent leaders imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the sole U.S. soldier known to be held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

The Taliban prisoners were to be sent to Qatar, where the insurgents then were to open a negotiating office.

U.S. officials have said in recent months that they planned to revive the prisoner swap, and the Taliban have repeatedly emphasized that would be the first step necessary to restart the talks. But there have been no apparent moves to release the Taliban prisoners.

The Afghan government has attempted to open a variety of other channels to the Taliban. Each has ended in failure, but recent overtures to Pakistan by Karzai’s High Peace Council have shown progress.

Karzai, when asked about the meetings in Paris this week, offered a subdued endorsement, saying the government supports all meetings that could further the goal of reaching a peaceful settlement.

But Karzai, who late last year nearly scuttled U.S. efforts to open talks with the Taliban in Qatar after complaining he had not been kept abreast of developments, also suggested there could be other motives for the Paris meetings, although he did not elaborate.

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