WASHINGTON The Obama administration is expressing new confidence that talks with the Taliban next week offer the best chance yet to end the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan.
But the intelligence community warns that the Taliban is more interested in continuing fighting than making peace.
To guard against the Taliban using the talks to boost its standing while delivering little in return, the U.S. this week will lay out confidence-building measures or specific steps that the U.S. and the insurgents agree to take ahead of formal talks.
A senior U.S. official said those talks, if they ever take place, would include the United States, the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomacy.
Several current and former U.S. officials said the most substantive give-and-take to date between U.S. and Taliban negotiators could happen in the next week, with the goal of establishing what the U.S. calls confidence-building measures specific steps that the U.S. and the insurgents agree to take ahead of formal talks. Those talks, if they ever take place, would include the United States, the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, a senior U.S. official said.
Like others interviewed, the official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomacy. Elements of the U.S. outreach to the Taliban are also classified.
The diplomatic, military and intelligence branches of the U.S. government differ over the value of talks with the Taliban or whether now is the right time to so publicly shift focus away from the ongoing military campaign that primarily targets Taliban insurgents. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and some uniformed military leaders have recently sounded some of the strongest notes of caution, especially on when to grant Taliban requests for the transfer of several of its prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military and other U.S. officials said.
The latest Afghan National Intelligence Estimate warns that the Taliban will grow stronger, using the talks to gain credibility and run out the clock until U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, while continuing to fight for more territory, say U.S. officials who have read the classified document. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the roughly 100-page review, an amalgam of intelligence community's predictions of possible scenarios for the Afghan war through the planned end to U.S. combat in 2014.
It says the Afghan government has largely failed to prove itself to its people and will likely continue to weaken and find influence only in the cities. It predicts that the Taliban and warlords will largely control the countryside.
Meanwhile, Karzai is still uneasy with the pace and direction of talks. He resents the selection of the Gulf state of Qatar as the site of a Taliban political office, although he has reluctantly agreed to that U.S.-backed plan. And he worries that the United States will strike a deal with the Taliban and force that deal on his government, two Afghan officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions. Karzai wanted the office located in Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Afghanistan.
U.S. officials close to the negotiations say that despite these warnings the Taliban high command is more ready for talks than in the past, at least with the United States if not the elected Afghan government it opposes.
One sign was the surprising public endorsement by the Taliban of the plan to open a negotiating office in Qatar. But U.S. officials also cite more subtle indications of a shift toward peace negotiations, including the recent participation in preliminary talks of more senior and influential Taliban representatives.
The senior U.S. official said negotiators are now confident they are talking to credible intermediaries for the main Taliban command based in Pakistan.
The administration's top negotiator, Marc Grossman, was building support for talks among regional allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia this week, to be followed by discussions with Taliban representatives, U.S. and other government officials said. Ahead of those sessions, officials described them as the most substantive and highest-level to date, with plans to cover specifics of the new office and the sequence of further good faith efforts on both sides that would set the stage for real talks.
One topic was expected to be a U.S. offer to release two or three Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo to custody in Qatar, although two officials said that effort is moving more slowly than plans for the office. A waiting period would follow that transfer before any other Taliban transfers would be considered. U.S. officials said Congress would be consulted throughout.
The Taliban had sought both the office and the prisoner release as preconditions for real talks.
The senior U.S. official said the U.S. has set clear conditions for opening the office, including that the Taliban must agree not to use it for fundraising or propaganda, or to run insurgent operations. Larger conditions include assurances that the insurgents are truly interested in a political settlement and not using negotiations as a way to run out the clock until U.S. forces leave.
The central political office confers instant, though controversial, legitimacy on the diffuse insurgency as a political movement and provides a site for formal talks. The idea is to give the Taliban room to negotiate in a location with less direct pressure from Pakistan, which has ties to some militant groups and houses parts of the Taliban leadership.
The U.S. intelligence assessment looks past the near horizon for talks.
It predicts the likely outcome of two strategies: moderate engagement, in which the U.S. continues special operations raids against key Taliban leaders, and village outreach to strengthen local government, while conventional forces train Afghanistan's army and police force, and limited engagement, in which the U.S. would continue economic and political support, and some Afghan security training, but most troops would withdraw.
Both strategies can weaken the Taliban, the analysts say, but ultimately, neither course of action is likely to stop the continued weakening of the Afghan state, the officials said.
In that way, the NIE's bleak predictions also give the White House reason to hasten the reconciliation process, in order to pull U.S. troops out what some analysts termed a hopeless stalemate.
Arsala Rahmani a former Taliban official turned Afghan peace negotiator, said that in the past year the Taliban leadership had expressed to the United States a new willingness to negotiate.
"Something happened," said Rahmani, a member of the Afghanistan peace council. "The leadership of the Taliban saw a green light from the Obama administration and after that, the Taliban leadership appointed people to get involved in the negotiation process."
Although U.S. and Taliban representatives have met secretly several times over the past year in Europe and the Gulf, the Taliban endorsement of the office plan on Jan. 3 was the first time it has publicly expressed willingness for substantive negotiations.