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Afghan, Pakistani Officials In Talks In Kabul With Taliban

The site of the current talks, Kabul's Serena Hotel, was the scene of a militant attack in January.
RFE/RL has learned that talks were in progress in Kabul between Taliban representatives, Afghan officials, and a Pakistani government delegation.

The talks, at the five-star Serena Hotel, were aimed at setting the ground for negotiations on ending the Afghanistan war. They followed inconclusive meetings hosted by Saudi Arabia that ended more than a year ago.

Sources told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that a so-called Afghan Peace Council was not yet officially involved in the talks because its mandate did not begin until October 7. However, some of the Peace Council's 69 members were said to be attending the October 6 negotiations.

The Peace Council comprises Afghan government delegates and lawmakers, former mujahedin commanders, leaders of Afghan nongovernmental groups, former Taliban officials, and delegates who once were members of the now exiled Afghan mujahedin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami faction.

The White House said on October 6 that President Barack Obama supported recent attempts by the Afghan government to negotiate peace with Taliban insurgents.

However, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also reiterated that Taliban leaders must first give up violence and their support for Al-Qaeda, and must promise to respect Afghan law. Gibbs also said it was up to Afghan leaders to decide whom to talk with.

'Speaking For Mullah Omar'

"The Washington Post" reported that "secret talks" of a "preliminary nature" were under way. That report gave no details about where discussions were taking place or who was attending. But it did quote Afghan and Arab sources who said Taliban representatives were, for the first time, fully authorized to speak for the Afghan Taliban's Pakistan-based Quetta Shura and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

"The Washington Post" report also said the talks do not include representatives of the Haqqani group -- a separate militant faction that has been the target of escalating U.S. drone missile attacks in northwestern Pakistan. The Haqqani network is seen as being more closely tied to Pakistan's intelligence service than is the Quetta Shura.

Abdul Hamid Mubarez, who heads a nongovernmental group called the Afghan Strategic Center, is a member of the Afghan Peace Council. He told RFE/RL today that the purpose of the talks was to develop a mechanism for more specific talks with Taliban leaders aimed at ending the Afghanistan war.

"If I did not have confidence in significant progress from these talks, I would not be participating in this Peace Council," Mubarez said.

Mubarez also told RFE/RL that Pakistan's government is playing a central role in negotiations.

"The people of Afghanistan are tired of war and Pakistan's government has a key role in these talks because the Taliban have their strongholds in Pakistan," Mubarez said. "They are under the influence of Pakistan. I think Pakistan is facing problems that leave no other way except to help resolve this conflict."

Delegation Clout

RFE/RL has learned that Pakistan's delegation is headed by former Foreign Minister Aftab Ahmad Shirpaw. Former members of the Taliban involved in the talks include the Taliban regime's ex-foreign minister, Malawi Mutawakel, and the Taliban regime's former point of contact with the United Nations, Abdul Hakim Mujahed.

U.S. officials say the time for real negotiations with the Taliban has only now arrived. General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said last week that high-level Taliban leaders had "sought to reach out" to the top level of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.

In Washington, the Pentagon said it is probably too soon to begin the process of reintegrating Taliban fighters back into Afghan society. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrel said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates thought the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan troops needed to make more progress on providing security on the ground.

Morrell did not say how long fighting might have to persist before serious reconciliation could advance. But he said the ISAF was raising pressure on the Taliban and the security situation was improving.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley declined to say whether the White House knew in advance about the Kabul talks, but said such discussions were an "inherent part" of the country's Afghan strategy.

"If you look at insurgencies, there has to be action both on the military side and action on the political side. The reconciliation element and the reintegration element are part of the political dimension of our strategy," he said. "Ultimately, insurgencies end, more often than not, because of a political agreement -- not because of a military defeat."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan bureau in Kabul contributed to this report