Talks to end the war in Afghanistan involve extensive,face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the groups leadership,who are secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops,officials here say.
The discussions are unfolding between the inner circle of President Hamid Karzai and members of the Quetta shura,the leadership group that oversees the Taliban war effort inside Afghanistan. Afghan leaders have also held discussions with leaders of the Haqqani network; and members of the Peshawar shura,whose fighters are based in eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban leaders coming into Afghanistan for talks have left their havens in Pakistan on the explicit assurance that they will not be attacked or arrested by NATO,Afghans familiar with the talks say.
In at least one case,Taliban leaders crossed the border and boarded a NATO aircraft bound for Kabul,according to an Afghan with knowledge of the talks. In other cases,NATO troops have secured roads to allow Taliban officials to reach Afghan- and NATO-controlled areas so they can take part in discussions. Most of the discussions have taken place outside of Kabul,according to the Afghan official.
At least four Taliban leaders,three of them members of the Quetta shura and one of them a member of the Haqqani family,have taken part in discussions,according to the Afghan official and a former diplomat in the region.
The discussions are still described as preliminary,partly because Afghan and American officials are trying to determine how much influence the Taliban leaders who have participated in the talks have within their own organisations.
Even so,the talks have been held on several different occasions and appear to represent the most substantive effort to date to negotiate an end to the nine-year-old war,which began with US-led campaign to overthrow the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks. These are face-to-face discussions, said an Afghan with knowledge of the talks. This is not about making the Americans happy or making Karzai happy. Its about what is in the best interests of the Afghan people.
These talks are based on personal relationships, the official said. When the Taliban see that they can travel in the country without being attacked by the Americans,they see that the government is sovereign,that they can trust us.
The discussions appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistans leaders. The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan,which Karzais government fears will exercise too much influence over Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw. But that strategy could backfire by provoking Pakistan.
Mullah Omar is being cut out of the negotiations,in part because of his closeness to the Pakistani security services,officials said.
Afghans who have tried to take part in,or even facilitate,past negotiations have been killed by their Taliban comrades,sometimes with the assistance of the ISI.
The ISI will try to prevent these negotiations from happening, the Afghan official said. The ISI will just eliminate them, he said,referring to the people who take part.
Cutting Mullah Omar out appears to represent an attempt by Afghan leaders to drive a wedge into the upper ranks of the Taliban leadership. Some officials believe that the Taliban is vulnerable to being split,with potentially large chunks of the movement defecting to the Afghan government.