KABUL — Afghanistan's government denied a report on Tuesday that it had been holding secret peace talks with the Taliban's number two leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, when he was arrested in Pakistan.
The announcement last month of Baradar's arrest in Karachi by U.S. and Pakistani agents has led to numerous unconfirmed media reports that the former top Taliban military commander might have been talking to Kabul, and that may have led to his arrest.
Despite being the mastermind of years of suicide strikes and other attacks on Karzai's government, Baradar is Karzai's tribal kinsmen and therefore seen as someone who might be more likely than other militants to accept an invitation to talks.
"There was no direct contact between the government of Afghanistan and Mullah Baradar," Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the latest reports.
Karzai has occasionally used go-betweens without official status in preliminary efforts to reach out to militants. Omer said he was not aware of any such unofficial contact with Baradar, but fell short of denying it.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Baradar was involved in "peace talks" with Karzai's government at the time of his arrest, quoting an unidentified aide to the Afghan president and a provincial official.
Karzai "was very angry" when he heard that the Pakistanis had picked up Baradar with an assist from U.S. intelligence, the Associated Press reported that an aide to Karzai had said. Besides the ongoing talks, he said Baradar had "given a green light" to participating in a three-day peace jirga that Karzai is hosting next month.
The adviser, who had knowledge of the peace talks, spoke on condition of anonymity because of their sensitivity. Other Afghan officials also confirmed talks between Baradar and the Afghan government, but none have been able to provide details that would corroborate the claims.
Few details about Baradar’s arrest
Talking with the Taliban is gaining traction in Afghanistan as thousands of U.S. and NATO reinforcements are streaming in to reverse the Taliban's momentum. That has prompted Pakistan and others to stake out their positions on possible reconciliation negotiations that could mean an endgame to the eight-year war.
Officials have disclosed little about how Baradar was nabbed last month in the port city of Karachi. The Pakistanis were said to be upset that the Americans were the source of news reports about his arrest.
The capture was part of a U.S.-backed crackdown in which the Pakistanis also arrested several other Afghan Taliban figures along the porous border between the two countries, after years of being accused by Washington of doing little to stop them.
Far from expressing gratitude, members of Karzai's administration were quick to accuse Pakistan of picking up Baradar either to sabotage or gain control of talks with the Taliban leaders.
Another theory is that Baradar, deemed more pragmatic than other top Taliban leaders, was detained to split him from fellow insurgents. McChrystal said recently that it was plausible that Baradar's arrest followed an internal feud and purge among Taliban leaders.
There is also speculation that Baradar's arrest was just lucky — even unintentional.
Whatever the reason, the delicate dance among Karzai, his neighbors and international partners put the debate over reconciliation on fast forward.
The time to talk is now
Top United Nations and British officials emphasized last week that the time to talk to the Taliban is now. The Afghan government, for its part, has plans to offer economic incentives to coax low- and midlevel fighters off the battlefield. Another driving force is President Barack Obama's goal of starting to withdraw U.S. troops in July 2011.
The United States, with nearly 950 lives lost and billions of dollars spent in the war, is moving with caution on reconciliation.
At a breakfast meeting in Islamabad last week, Karzai said he and his Western allies were at odds over who should be at the negotiating table. Karzai said the United States was expressing reservations about talks with the top echelon of the Taliban while the British were "pushing for an acceleration" in the negotiation process.
"Our allies are not always talking the same language," he said.
Karzai said overtures to the Taliban stood little chance of success without the support of the United States and its international partners. He said his previous attempts to negotiate with insurgents were not fruitful because "sections of the international community undermined — not backed — our efforts."
The U.S. has said generally that it supports efforts to welcome back any militants who renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaida and recognize and respect the Afghan constitution, but it is keeping details of its position closely held.
During his trip to Afghanistan last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it was premature to expect senior members of the Taliban to reconcile with the government. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she's highly skeptical that Taliban leaders will be willing to renounce violence.
Hamid Gul, a former director of the Pakistani intelligence service who has criticized the U.S. role in Afghanistan, said the insurgents want three things from the U.S. before talks could begin — a clearer timetable on the withdrawal of troops, to stop labeling them terrorists, and the release of all Taliban militants imprisoned in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.