Secret U.S., Taliban talks reach turning point

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – After 10 months of secret  dialogue with Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents, senior U.S.  officials say the talks have reached a critical juncture and  they will soon know whether a breakthrough is possible, leading  to peace talks whose ultimate goal is to end the Afghan war.

As part of the accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy, Reuters  has learned, the United States is considering the transfer of an  unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay  military prison into Afghan government custody.

It has asked representatives of the Taliban to match that  confidence-building measure with some of their own. Those could  include a denunciation of international terrorism and a public  willingness to enter formal political talks with the government  headed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The officials acknowledged that the Afghanistan diplomacy,  which has reached a delicate stage in recent weeks, remains a  long shot. Among the complications: U.S. troops are drawing down  and will be mostly gone by the end of 2014, potentially reducing  the incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.

Still, the senior officials, all of whom insisted on  anonymity to share new details of the mostly secret effort,  suggested it has been a much larger piece of President Barack  Obama’s Afghanistan policy than is publicly known.

U.S. officials have held about half a dozen meetings with  their insurgent contacts, mostly in Germany and Doha with  representatives of Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban’s Quetta  Shura, the officials said.

The stakes in the diplomatic effort could not be higher.      Failure would likely condemn Afghanistan to continued conflict,  perhaps even civil war, after NATO troops finish turning  security over to Karzai’s weak government by the end of 2014.

Success would mean a political end to the war and the  possibility that parts of the Taliban – some hardliners seem  likely to reject the talks – could be reconciled.

The effort is now at a pivot point.

“We imagine that we’re on the edge of passing into the next  phase. Which is actually deciding that we’ve got a viable  channel and being in a position to deliver” on mutual  confidence-building measures, said a senior U.S. official.

While some U.S.-Taliban contacts have been previously  reported, the extent of the underlying diplomacy and the  possible prisoner transfer have not been made public until now.

The reconciliation effort, which has already faced setbacks  including a supposed Taliban envoy who turned out to be an  imposter, faces hurdles on multiple fronts, the U.S. officials  acknowledged.

They include splits within the Taliban; suspicion from  Karzai and his advisers; and Pakistan’s insistence on playing a  major, even dominating, role in Afghanistan’s future.

Obama will likely face criticism, including from Republican  presidential candidates, for dealing with an insurgent group  that has killed U.S. soldiers and advocates a strict Islamic  form of government.

But U.S. officials say that the Afghan war, like others  before it, will ultimately end in a negotiated settlement.

“The challenges are enormous,” a second senior U.S. official  acknowledged. “But if you’re where we are … you can’t not try.  You have to find out what’s out there.”       

 NEXT STEPS?       

If the effort advances, one of the next steps would be more  public, unequivocal U.S. support for establishing a Taliban  office outside of Afghanistan.

U.S. officials said they have told the Taliban they must not  use that office for fundraising, propaganda or constructing a  shadow government, but only to facilitate future negotiations  that could eventually set the stage for the Taliban to reenter  Afghan governance.

Yesterday, a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace  Council said the Taliban had indicated it was willing to open an  office in an Islamic country.

But underscoring the fragile nature of the multi-sided  diplomacy, Karzai on Wednesday announced he was recalling  Afghanistan’s ambassador to Qatar, after reports that nation was  readying the opening of the Taliban office. Afghan officials  complained they were left out of the loop.

On a possible transfer of Taliban prisoners long held at  Guantanamo, U.S. officials stressed the mve would be a  ‘national decision’ made in consultation with the U.S. Congress.  Obama is expected to soon sign into law the 2011 defense  authorization bill that contains new provisions on detainee  policy.

There are slightly fewer that 20 Afghan citizens at  Guantanamo, according to various accountings. It is not known  which ones might be transferred, nor what assurances the White  House has that the Karzai government would keep them in its  custody.     Guantanamo detainees have been released to foreign  governments—and sometimes set free by them—before. But the  transfer as part of a diplomatic negotiation appears  unprecedented.

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