Taliban officials have engaged in periodic, discreet contacts with Afghan and U.S. officials for months but are unwilling to move to formal peace negotiations until the U.S. agrees to a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, according to a Pakistani intelligence official and members of a newly formed Afghan peace council.
The White House said Wednesday that President Barack Obama supports attempts by the Afghan government to open peace talks with Taliban leaders, but still wants the insurgents to renounce violence and their support of al-Qaida.
However, press secretary Robert Gibbs said the United States was not taking part in any such talks. "This is about Afghanistan," he said. "It has to be done by the Afghans."
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that secret talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan have begun between representatives of the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The Post quoted Afghan and Arab sources as saying they believe for the first time that Taliban representatives are fully authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban command council based in Pakistan, and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Nevertheless, other Pakistanis and Afghans familiar with the process insist all contacts have been limited to indirect message exchanges, using mediators who include former Taliban members. Those contacts were described as exploratory, with all sides trying to assess the other's positions.
Most of those familiar with the contacts spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.
Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan's main intelligence service who has had longtime ties to the Taliban, told The Associated Press that the insurgents have laid down three preconditions for formal negotiations — a timetable for a NATO withdrawal, release of all Taliban prisoners and a deal to drop the terrorist label which the religious movement was given after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday that while the U.S. has seen high-level Taliban members reaching out to the Afghan government, "I think it's too soon to suggest that there is ... a wider movement afoot — that the tide is turning in terms of reintegration and reconciliation."
For their part, the Taliban have repeatedly denied any such contacts, saying they will not talk peace so long as U.S. and NATO troops remain in the country.
Still, several Pakistanis and Afghans insist that CIA officials have held clandestine meetings with top Taliban leaders, some at the level of the Taliban's shadow Cabinet ministers. At least two rounds of meetings were held in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, according to a former Taliban member who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his own safety.
He said the talks were held in the area between the towns of Peshawar and Mardan and included Qudratullah Jamal, the former Taliban information minister.
The CIA denied that any such meetings took place but could not say whether representatives of the U.S. government have met with the Taliban.
Michael Scheuer, Washington's former point-man in the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, said the United States was looking for a way to extricate itself from Afghanistan.
"The game is over and we are looking for a way out," Scheuer said. "Obama won't be able to hold his base for 2012 if he is not out" of both Iraq and Afghanistan by then.
Last February, Karzai sent a small delegation of former Taliban members to Saudi Arabia to seek the kingdom's help in kick-starting talks with the Taliban. But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom would not get involved in peacemaking unless the Taliban severed all ties with bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network — a key U.S. demand.
One of the former Taliban members, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said unequivocally at the time that he could not negotiate on behalf of the Taliban. The meeting ended without any results.
Another complication facing any substantial peace negotiations is the role of Pakistan. Despite its role as a U.S. partner, Pakistan harbors Afghan Taliban members and nurtured the organization during the years before it seized control of the Afghan government in 1996.
Earlier this year, the Pakistanis and the Americans arrested the Taliban's No. 2 figure, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who Afghan officials said was in contact with Karzai.
The Afghans believed the Pakistanis agreed to the arrest to sever those contacts until they received assurances they would get what they wanted out of a peace deal.
Pakistan, which wields considerable influence among the insurgents, has its own set of conditions, including a role in a post-NATO Afghanistan and limits on influence there by its archrival India.
"Very urgently the Pakistan government could do a lot if they wanted to," said Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy education minister who now sits on the High Peace Council, which Karzai set up to negotiate peace with his armed opponents.
Another council member said the Pakistanis are withholding support for peace talks until it receives guarantees that Indian influence in Afghanistan will be reduced and that former Taliban members will be able to participate in the Afghan government. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.