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US Still Taking a Hard Line on Peace Talks with Taliban

by Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - Following serious setbacks to the U.S. military's war plan in Afghanistan, the Barack Obama administration has taken the first tentative step toward a negotiated settlement of the conflict by actively seeking to ascertain the willingness of the Taliban to enter into negotiations, according to a source familiar with the administration's thinking about the issue.

But the administration is still sticking to demands on the Taliban that it knows are not realistic, in a manner that is strikingly similar to the demands stated publicly by the United States in the early stage of the Vietnam War.

Obama has yet to make a crucial political decision to separate a military settlement with the Taliban from the negotiation of a settlement between the Taliban and the Hamid Karzai government, according to the source.

The source confirmed to IPS that the Pakistani military has been in discussions with Taliban leaders and had been sharing its notes of the meetings with U.S. and Saudi officials, as had been reported by Syed Saleem Shahzad in the Asia Times Sep. 11.

But the source suggested that, contrary to the implication of the Shahzad story, the Pakistani conversations with the Taliban are not aimed at preparing the way for a separate U.S.-Taliban deal. The administration is still in the stage of intensive intelligence gathering, according to the source, rather than conducting an indirect political dialogue with the Taliban leadership separate from contacts between Karzai and the Taliban.

The administration position on peace talks was articulated by Gen. Petraeus in an interview with Katie Couric Aug. 20. "We're not the ones calling the shots," said Petraeus. "At the end of the day those who will determine whether reconciliation goes forward or not are those who lead the Afghan government, and that is why it is appropriate that they lead these efforts…."

Petraeus listed Karzai's conditions for the Taliban to meet for a peace settlement: "They must respect the constitution, lay down weapons, cut off ties with al Qaeda and essentially be willing to be productive members of society."

The source indicated that the Obama administration has not suggested any willingness to agree to a U.S. troop withdrawal in return for a Taliban commitment to reject al Qaeda and to ensure that it will not be able to operate from Afghan soil. Such a troop withdrawal-for-al Qaeda deal could satisfy the U.S. national security interest in the war as articulated by the Obama administration itself.

Contrary to the Shahzad article, the Pakistanis have not conveyed anything to the Taliban as concrete as asking whether the Taliban would agree to a deal under which U.S. troops would evacuate from the south but remain in the north.

The U.S. continues to assert that full U.S. troop withdrawal would only come in conjunction with a settlement between Karzai and the Taliban.

The administration is fully aware that the final settlement in Afghanistan will bear no resemblance to the demand for Taliban submission that is the official U.S.-Karzai position at present, according to the source.

That demand is roughly equivalent to the position taken by the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965 that the insurgents in South Vietnam could participate in elections if they would "lay down their arms" and "accept amnesty".

The source explained the rationale for maintaining that unrealistic maximalist position as being the belief that it will result in a better deal than going to the U.S. "bottom line" immediately.

Underlying that posture is the assumption that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan gives the United States significant leverage on the Taliban with regard to the internal settlement with Karzai.

Even if the United States were to withdraw two-thirds of its troops, the source indicated, it would still have such diplomatic leverage, partly because it would increase domestic support for the war, in the same way that President Richard Nixon's withdrawal of troops from Vietnam from 1969 through 1972 made it possible for him to lengthen the war.

In the Pakistani-Taliban talks on a settlement, the Taliban leaders have insisted on a complete U.S. troop withdrawal, according to Shahzad.

The Taliban has also confirmed what had been signaled in an article on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan website last December - that it is prepared to give legal assurances that al Qaeda and other global jihadist organisations would not be allowed to operate in Afghanistan after the war against foreign military forces.

In an interview with IPS last January, Arsalaan Rahmani, a former deputy minister of education in the Taliban regime who participated in a small team that had served as intermediaries between Karzai and the Taliban, said any negotiations between the Taliban and Karzai regime would have to be preceded by agreement with the United States on the key international issues of withdrawal of all foreign troops and the Taliban's renunciation of ties with al Qaeda.

A comment by Gen. David Petraeus on Monday that high-level Taliban figures had "reached out" to Karzai appeared to suggest that the Taliban might be relaxing that position. But Rachmani told IPS he doubted Petraeus's claim of a new Taliban approach to Karzai. He said he would be aware of any such change in the Taliban posture.

Former Taliban foreign ministry official Wahid Muzhda, who follows Taliban policies closely, also told IPS he had not heard of any such move by the Taliban. Muzhda noted that during Eid, the three-day Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan Sep. 9, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar had vowed to continue the war and said the Taliban would "never accept" the current government.

The fact that the administration's thinking about a negotiated settlement has not advanced beyond the stage of maximalist demands suggests that its policy will have to through a series of stages before adjusting fully to the reality that it cannot control the post-occupation politics of Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Ahmad Walid Fazly in Kabul.

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