U.S. renews push for talks with Taliban
A former Taliban militant hands over his weapon to Herat governor Dawood Shah Saba, right, during a joining ceremony with the Afghan government in Herat, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011. About 10 former Taliban militants from Herat province handed over their weapons as part of a peace-reconciliation program. / AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi
WASHINGTON The Obama administration hopes to restore momentum in the spring to U.S. talks with the Taliban insurgency that had reached a critical point before falling apart this month because of objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
One goal of renewed talks with the insurgents would be to identify cease-fire zones that could be used as a steppingstone toward a full peace agreement that stops most fighting, a senior administration official told The Associated Press a goal that remains far out of reach.
U.S. officials from the State Department and White House plan to continue a series of secret meetings with Taliban representatives in Europe and the Persian Gulf region next year, assuming a small group of Taliban emissaries the U.S. considers legitimate remains willing, two officials said.
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive and precarious U.S. outreach to the Taliban leadership.
The U.S. outreach to the Taliban this year had fits and starts but had progressed to the point that there was active discussion of two steps the Taliban seeks as precursors to negotiations, the senior U.S. official said. Talks are on an unofficial hiatus at Karzai's request, U.S. and other officials said.
Those trust-building measures were a Taliban headquarters office and the release from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of about five Afghan prisoners considered affiliated with the Taliban. Those steps were to be matched by assurances from at least part of the Taliban leadership that the insurgents would cut ties with al Qaeda, accept the elected civilian government of Afghanistan and bargain in good faith.
The Taliban office idea is seen the most likely to regain traction next year, but it's unclear when it might open. A political office in a neutral third country would be authorized to conduct talks on a peaceful end to the 10-year war.
Karzai remains opposed to the more difficult prisoner transfer plan, which is further complicated by new congressional restrictions on any prisoner transfers.
The U.S. tentatively had agreed to transfer a handful of Afghan prisoners to house arrest in a third country, probably Qatar, before the deal unraveled, U.S. officials said.
The Associated Press has learned the identity of some of the proposed transferees, including Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander believed responsible for sectarian killings before the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001.
Karzai's own advisers seeking peace with the Taliban had named those men among several Afghan Taliban prisoners it wanted released from Guantanamo as a goodwill gesture, but Karzai wants the prisoners to come to Afghanistan, not a third country, a senior Afghan official in the region said.
Sending Afghans to an Arab country could offend Afghans' sense of sovereignty and suggest that the U.S. does not think Afghanistan is fit to hold or try the men, officials said.
"As soon as I was released, I met President Karzai and he promised that he would not allow Afghan prisoners to be sent anywhere except Afghanistan," said Haji Ruhollah, an Afghan who was released from Guantanamo in 2010. "They are all Afghans and they should be brought and kept in Afghanistan."
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