Washington - Reports over the past 10 days of high-level talks between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and senior representatives of the Taliban have spurred growing speculation here about whether Washington is looking for a speedy exit to the longest foreign war in its history.
The speculation has been fuelled by a number of factors, including reports that U.S. and NATO officials have been actively facilitating the talks by, among other things, providing safe passage of Taliban leaders to Kabul, and a spate of news accounts suggesting that U.S. forces have finally turned the tide of battle in Kandahar, the Taliban's most important stronghold.
"We're now at least advocating negotiations and supporting them; that's major shift from past years," said Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain and State Department adviser in Afghanistan.
Hoh directs the Afghanistan Study Group, a task force of foreign policy specialists that last month called for substantially reducing Washington's military commitment and encouraging a negotiated settlement.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said, adding "Very cautiously."
Contributing to the speculation is the departure of Gen. James Jones (ret.) as President Barack Obama's national security adviser and his formal replacement Friday by Jones' deputy, Tom Donilon.
Donilon was known to be more sceptical about the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy recommended by the Pentagon for Afghanistan and more outspoken in opposing it before its adoption by Obama late last year.
Considered close to Vice President Joseph Biden, Donilon is also considered a more "political" appointment in that he is closely attuned to Congressional sentiment, particularly that of Democratic lawmakers who have been pressing Obama hard to hold to his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in earnest no later than July 2011.
Top Republicans, as well as senior military officers, led by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen and the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, on the other hand, have urged Obama to abandon that deadline or make at most only a token withdrawal at that time.
The speculation about U.S. Afghan policy comes as cabinet- level U.S. military and civilian officials met here for three days with their Pakistani counterparts whose cooperation in denying safe haven and other forms of support to the Taliban and al Qaeda is seen here as critical to the success of Petraeus's COIN strategy.
In order to gain that cooperation, Obama, who met personally with the Pakistani delegation that included Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, promised to ask Congress to approve a military-aid package worth $2 billion over the next five years, in addition to the nearly $2 billion it is supplying Kayani's troops this year.
At the same time, U.S. officials warned that Islamabad's failure to cooperate would result in cuts to both economic and military assistance, of which Washington is estimated to have provided more than $3.5 billion over the past year.
Despite Islamabad's vehement denials, Pakistan's military, and particularly its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, is widely believed by U.S. officials to protect and, in some cases, provide support to various Taliban factions. This includes the so-called Haqqani faction based in North Waziristan. The Haqqanis, in turn, are believed to protect senior al Qaeda chiefs, with which they are closely aligned.
Last February, the Pakistanis arrested as many as 23 Taliban leaders, including the reputed number two in the so-called Quetta Shura, Mullah Ghani Baradar, after the ISI discovered they were engaged in secret talks with Karzai's government. Washington apparently learned about these exchanges only after the men were arrested.
Most analysts here believe any peace negotiations between Karzai and the major Taliban factions cannot succeed without Pakistan's acquiescence, if not support. The Pakistanis reportedly stressed their interest in participating in any peace talks between the two sides during their visit here this week.
Karzai has long urged opening talks with Taliban leaders and last spring appointed a High Peace Council, made up of prominent politicians and warlords, to help in that process.
But, until recently, he has received little or no support from Washington, which has insisted that reconciliation would be possible only with low- or- mid-ranking militants who agree to lay down their arms, cut all ties to al Qaeda and its affiliates, and abide by the relatively liberal provisions of Afghanistan's constitution.
For its part, the Taliban has formally rejected participating in any peace talks before all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan. Various factions, including the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani group, have also denied recent reports about their involvement in talks.
Speculation about a change in U.S. policy was spurred late last month when Petraeus told reporters that "very high- level Taliban leaders …have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government, and, indeed, have done that."
It was fuelled this week by a New York Times report that U.S. and NATO forces had facilitated "extensive, face-to- face" discussions in Kabul and elsewhere between the Karzai government and "Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group's leadership," including from the shuras based in Quetta and Peshawar and from the Haqqani group.
In addition to granting safe passage, according to the report, NATO flew at least one Pakistan-based Taliban commander from the border to Kabul.
No major details of these talks, which have mainly been described as preliminary and exploratory, have yet emerged, but analysts here are divided as to their seriousness and promise.
"There is evidence that there are divisions within the movement and that some of those (Taliban) leaders may not have the influence they once did," said Matthew Waldman, an Afghanistan expert, at a forum sponsored by the New America Foundation Thursday.
While agreeing that the process is at a very early, tentative stage, Michael Semple, an Afghanistan specialist at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, wrote Friday in the Financial Times that they may help "(lay) the groundwork" for future progress if the U.S. and other members of the international community "invest serious diplomatic effort in a new political settlement which enables the insurgent leadership to renounce armed struggle."
Despite its more open support for peace talks, it remains unclear whether Washington, which has long insisted that it must first reverse the Taliban's momentum before serious negotiations can get underway, is willing to get behind such an effort.
In that sense, the sudden spate of reports over the past week - after months of almost unrelieved bad news on the military front - that U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces are taking control of areas in Kandahar long controlled by the Taliban, whether accurate or not, suggest that the administration may indeed be shifting gears.
*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
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