Three Taliban leaders secretly met with Afghanistan's president two weeks ago in an effort to weaken the U.S.-led coalition's most vicious enemy, a powerful al-Qaida linked network that straddles the border region with Pakistan.
Held in Kabul, the meeting included a wanted former Taliban governor and an imprisoned militant who were flown to the capital from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, according to a former Afghan official.
The talks were not directly linked to the Afghan government's efforts to broker a peace with the Taliban and find a political resolution to the insurgency. Rather, they were part of an effort to weaken the Haqqani network, the former official said over the weekend. A Western official, who spoke anonymously because he had no authority to discuss the talks, confirmed that a meeting between President Hamid Karzai and Taliban figures had taken place, but did not know its full details or the names of all the participants.
Led by the ailing Jalaluddin Haqqani and controlled by his son, Sirajuddin, the network is thought to be responsible for most attacks against U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan and has been a key U.S. military target. The network is linked to al-Qaida and is believed to be sheltering its second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Weakening the network would take the pressure off U.S forces and bolster Karzai's efforts to broker some kind of peace with the Taliban in portions of the country.
The Taliban leaders who met with Karzai are: Maulvi Abdul Kabir, the governor of eastern Nangarhar province during Taliban rule and the current head of the Taliban's Peshawar council; his deputy governor in the Taliban regime, Sedre Azam; and Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed, a militant leader from eastern Afghanistan credited with helping Osama bin Laden escape the U.S. assault on Tora Bora in 2001, the former official said.
They spent two nights in the Afghan capital. Kabir is on the U.S. most wanted list.
The men were brought by helicopter from Peshawar in neighboring Pakistan and driven into Kabul. Mujahed has been in Pakistani custody since June last year when he was picked up in a raid in Peshawar, where one of several Afghan Taliban shuras, or councils, is located.
They spent two nights at a heavily fortified hotel in the Afghan capital before returning to Peshawar by helicopter, where Mujahed was placed again in custody. The U.S. earlier this month acknowledged facilitating some Taliban trips to Kabul but provided no specifics. The Pakistani military has not commented on such reports.
The former Afghan official, who asked not to be named because of his relationship with both the government and the Taliban, described Kabir and his associates as "midlevel" contacts because they have little, if any influence over the more powerful Quetta and Waziristan shuras. Those two shuras provide leadership for the majority of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and are overseen by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the fanatical one-eyed Taliban leader.
The Haqqani network straddles Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area and the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika. The provinces' residents are mainly Pashtun, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan that is the backbone of the Taliban.
But in Afghanistan, where power and strength are measured by tribal influence, Washington and Kabul are seeking to capitalize on Kabir's position in eastern Afghanistan's powerful and dominant Zadran tribe. Both Kabir and Haqqani belong to the tribe.
The elderly Haqqani has drawn his strength from the Zadran tribe — estimated to number about 500,000 people — since the war with the Soviets in the 1980s. Outside the three eastern Afghan provinces, the Zadrans also dominate some small pockets in northwest Pakistan.
Both Washington and Karzai want to try and sap some of Haqqani's tribal-based strength by bringing Kabir on board and dividing tribal loyalties, the Afghan official said.
Karzai has formed a 70-member High Peace Council in an effort to try to reconcile with the Taliban and find a political solution to the insurgency. The Taliban deny that any of their representatives have been involved in talks. They claim their leaders will not discuss peace with the government unless foreign troops first leave Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, last week said news reports of extensive discussions between Afghan government officials and senior Taliban commanders were off base. He told reporters in Washington last week that there have been no such talks or discussions, let alone negotiations.
However, Holbrooke did say that individuals who have fought alongside the Taliban — apparently not Taliban leaders themselves — have been reaching out. Holbrooke mentioned no names but said those who are making such contacts are "provincial leaders, individual commanders."
Despite Kabir's repudiation of talks on a Taliban website, the AP has confirmed with four independent Western and Afghan officials that he has participated in meetings with the Kabul administration.
Although Kabir was powerful during the Taliban's rule as both governor of Nangarhar province and deputy prime minister, his Peshawar shura has little influence over the stronger councils to the south where military decisions are made, the former Afghan official said.
Mullah Sadre Azam is not considered a major player within the Taliban movement, while Mujahed is the son of Maulvi Younis Khalis, who founded the organization Hizb-i-Islami Khalis, an offshoot of the larger Hizb-i-Islami organization led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Once a U.S. ally during the war with the Soviets, Hekmatyar is now a wanted terrorist.
Mujahed, meanwhile, took over his father's faction to fight international and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Khalis was among those in Afghanistan, along with Hajji Abdul Qadir, a minister in Karzai's first post-Taliban government, who helped Osama bin Laden leave Sudan and resettle in Afghanistan in 1996.
Mujahed allegedly helped bin Laden escape to Pakistan along with the help of Hajji Zaman, who was working with the U.S.-led coalition at the time. In Pakistan custody since last year, Mujahed was brought to Kabul with Pakistan's help, the former Afghan official said.
In a related development, Arsala Rahmani, an ex-Taliban who is now on Karzai's newly established peace commission, told the AP that the Afghan government has asked Pakistan to repatriate 31 suspected Taliban in its custody. The most senior Taliban in Pakistan custody, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's No. 2, was picked up in a joint raid with the CIA earlier this year. Pakistani authorities have quashed repeated rumors of his release saying he is still in custody.
Kathy Gannon is The Associated Press special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.