msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/27/2010 12:51:25 PM ET 2010-06-27T16:51:25

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has held face-to-face talks with Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of a particularly brutal militant group with ties to al-Qaida, Al Jazeera reported on Sunday.

The presidential office reportedly denied that any meeting took place between Karzai and the Haqqani network, a group high on the CIA's hit list that is believed to have been behind some of the most sophisticated attacks across Afghanistan.

Pakistan's army chief and the head of the country's intelligence services are thought to have accompanied Haqqani to the talks, sources told Al Jazeera. Pakistan's intelligence and military officials have long been thought to foster close links with members of the Taliban and other militant groups working in Afghanistan.

The reports have fuelled speculation that Pakistan is trying to forge a deal that would safeguard its interests in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr said from Kabul. 

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Pakistan's neighbor and arch-rival India accuses Islamabad of supporting militant groups in Afghanistan and India's part of Kashmir. India's presence in Afghanistan has grown dramatically since the Pakistan-supported Taliban government was toppled in late 2001.

Haqqanis irreconcilable?
On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that while Pakistan has an important role in brokering talks between Afghan militant factions and Karzai's government, the Haqqanis were probably irreconcilable with the Afghan government and unlikely to give up their al-Qaida ties.

"We see Pakistan as a partner in fighting violent extremism," Hague told reporters during a trip to Pakistan's capital Islamabad on Wednesday.

He declined to criticize Pakistan for allegations that its intelligence service has deep, active links with the Haqqanis and other elements of the Afghan Taliban.

The U.S. and its allies are struggling to shore up confidence in Kabul that the war strategy is on track. After more than eight years of war, the Taliban is resurgent and many Afghans are weary of the ongoing insecurity and pervasive government corruption.

The top American military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, flew to Afghanistan on Saturday to assure  Karzai that the new Afghan war commander, Gen. David Petraeus, would pursue the policies of his predecessor, including efforts to reduce civilian casualties.

Petraeus is taking over from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of his command by President Barack Obama after he and his aides were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine making disparaging remarks about top administration officials.

Violence has been on an upswing in the volatile south in recent weeks, with NATO deaths reported daily.

NATO announced Sunday that more than 600 Afghan and international troops were battling al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the eastern province of Kunar, which borders Pakistan. Three members of the allied force were killed in the fighting, including two Americans, a military statement said.

June has become the deadliest month of the war for NATO troops with at least 93 killed, 56 of them American. For U.S. troops, the deadliest month was October 2009, with a toll of 59 dead.

Taliban attacks against those allied with the government or NATO forces have also surged. In the latest such violence, the headmaster of a high school in eastern Ghazni was beheaded by militants on Saturday, the Education Ministry said. A high school in the same district — Qarabagh — was set on fire the same day.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Obama backtracking on Afghan withdrawal date?

  1. Transcript of: Obama backtracking on Afghan withdrawal date?

    MR. GREGORY: This is, this is so important at a time when I think America is so grateful, and thankful for our fighting men and women in Afghanistan and the incredible sacrifices that, that they offer day in and day out. The debate about the war still matters, and maybe too few Americans are really engaged in it, and that's why we wanted to dedicate the time here. Congresswoman Lee , the most important aspect, I think, of this interview that I just did with Senator McCain is about when the troops come home. A year from now they're supposed to start coming out. Now, the president was asked about that July 11 timetable, and this is what he said about it this week.

    PRES. OBAMA: We did not say that starting July 2011 suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan . We didn't say we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. What we said is we'd begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility.

    MR. GREGORY: Now, you heard Senator McCain say that's too opaque, that's too vague. The president ought to really level with the country and say, "We don't know how it's going to go. We may need more troops ." Where do you come down?

    REP. LEE: Thank you, David . Nearly a decade ago, the American people were told that we were going into Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden and to stop al-Qaeda . At this point, we have to look at what has happened during that last 10 years. Has our goal and mission been accomplished? The reason I could not support giving then President Bush and any subsequent president a blank check to wage endless war was precisely because of what has happened. The American people, had they known that this would be the longest war in history, I think there would have been much more debate and discussion in Congress . And there may have been a three-hour discussion before this authorization was granted. I think we need an exit strategy, we need a plan, we need a, a way to begin to redeploy our young men and women out of harm's way, and we need to look at how to move forward.

    MR. GREGORY: Do you think the president's backtracking when you hear him say, "Hey, we never said we were just going to turn the lights out and leave"?

    REP. LEE: I think the public expects a review in December. The public respects us to begin to end this in July of next year. I, for one, do not believe that we should have even gone there. Again, we have to remember why we went to Afghanistan .

    MR. GREGORY: But, but my question, Congresswoman, do you believe the president was backtracking in those remarks? A lot of people on the left were concerned about it.

    REP. LEE: I hope the president is not backtracking. I believe that the longer we stay in Iraq -- excuse me, in Afghanistan , we're going to hear generals say, and come to us, say -- and say, "It may not be working. We need more money, more time, more troops ." Or, if there's progress being made, we're going to hear the generals saying, "We need more money, more troops , and a longer time frame ." So I believe that we need to stick with what the president initially said, and that is to begin to end this next July.

    MR. GREGORY: General McCaffrey , Joe Klein is -- for Time magazine , in his new piece --

    who's covered the strategy, covered the war extensively, wrote this this week: " Obama is going to have to be less coy with the public about what is really going to happen in July 2011 , even if that risks alienated his party's vestigial anti-war base. He is going to have to make it clear that `significant' troop withdrawals -- a word bandied around in recent weeks -- are not in the cards unless the situation on the ground changes dramatically, for good or for ill."

    GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY (Ret.): Sure. Look , this is a political dilemma, not a military one. There's 7,000 killed and wounded, $5.4 billion a month, the American people don't support the war. We have a goofy, incompetent Afghan government . We're trying to build an Afghan security force and get it largely done in a very short period of time. None of this is going to work the way we're going about it. So, again, back to, I think, the congresswoman's remarks, you either got to pull out in, in a stated time frame with huge negative consequences, potentially, to Pakistan , the Afghans themselves, U.S. foreign policy ; or you, you announce that we're in there until we have achieved a stable political system in Afghanistan .

    MR. GREGORY: Wes Moore , what is the argument to be made in support of the president sticking -- as they are doing. I've spoken to White House officials, military officials; they're sticking to this July 2011 time frame . They emphasize this is not a, you know, a time when everybody comes out, it's the beginning of a process and there will still be significant numbers of U.S. troops on the ground there.

    MR. WES MOORE: Well, I think it's important to understand that we are going on close to 10 years. But this war has not been a priority for close to 10 years. I mean, in the time when I was over there, we had around -- a little over 19,000 troops on the ground to cover a land mass that is 50 percent larger than Iraq . So this was never a large priority on the side. And I think the problem is when you have second-tier priorities, you get second-tier results. There, there is no one who wants us to redeploy more than me. For every day for the past 10 years I have either been in harm's way or had friends who have been in harm's way. So I want -- no one more than me wants this to end. But we also understand the consequences and ramifications for having a pre-emptive pullout without any type of understanding or real comprehension of the conditions on the ground as well.

    MR. GREGORY: Do you agree with what Senator McCain said, which is maybe the president needs to say, "Look, we're properly resourcing the war. I can't tell you how it ends by that point. We may need more troops if we're going to get this done right. We're in -- we're in for 10 years almost, nine years. We got to do it right."

    MR. MOORE: Well, I think the indication that we have right now is that the system that we have in place and the systems that we put in place over the past few years are actually starting to show some results. We have a 30 percent increase in Afghan security force participation. We now are finally seeing complete integration between the civilian side and military side. These are important developments if we're going to see that type of progress in Afghanistan . But I do think the crucial thing to remember throughout all this is that the decisions on the ground and the conditions on the ground need to be the thing to help guide the policy.

    MR. GREGORY: I'm not sure we're having complete integration between the civilian and the military side in terms of what's happening on the ground there. But we're going to return to that in just a minute.

    MR. MOORE: Yes.

    MR. GREGORY: Sebastian , weigh in on that.

    MR. JUNGER: I've been reporting from Afghanistan since '96, for the first 10 years of that, from the perspective of the civilian population . It's of incredible concern to me. I mean, human -- these are human rights watch figures. Since NATO has been there, 16,000 Afghan civilians have died in combat operations. It's a horrifying number. That ended a period of violence in Afghanistan under the Taliban where 400,000 Afghans were killed. So we really do need to assess the effect of pulling out on the Afghan people , first of all. It's -- people back here don't realize that. I think that, you know, the left -- and I 'm, I'm left wing -- when they talk about withdrawal, their concern is the humanitarian impacts of war. But they do not remember the '90s.

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