Talk of Afghan Peace Talks Legit or 'Information Operation'?

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McClatchy Newspapers

Talk of Afghan Peace Talks Legit or 'Information Operation'?

US Officials, Experts: No High-Level Afghan Peace Talks Under Way

by
Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel

U.S. Marines from 1st Battalion 8th Marines head out on patrol from an outpost at Kunjak in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, October 21, 2010. Questions surround the veracity of recent claims about high-level talks between warring parties. "That (psychological warfare) is exactly what it is," said a former senior U.S. official in touch with the White House.(Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly)

WASHINGTON
— Despite news reports of high-level talks between the Taliban and the
Afghan government, no significant peace negotiations are under way in
Afghanistan, U.S. officials and Afghanistan experts said Thursday.

These same experts said the reports, which
appeared in a number of U.S. media outlets, could be part of a U.S.
"information strategy" to divide and weaken the Taliban leadership.

"This
is a psychological operation, plain and simple," said a U.S. official
with firsthand knowledge of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's outreach
effort.

"Exaggerating the significance of it (the contacts) is an effort
to sow distrust within the insurgency, to make insurgents suspicious
with each other and to send them on witch hunts looking for traitors who
want to negotiate with the enemy," said the U.S. official. He requested
anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Ali
Jalali, a scholar at the National Defense University and a former Afghan
interior minister who maintains close contacts with the Afghan
government, said he knew of no significant peace negotiations.

"There
is a desire (by the Afghan government and its foreign backers) for
talks with the Taliban and others, but the situation is not ready for
these talks yet," he told McClatchy. "There is a lot of smoke, but no
fire."

News accounts have said the talks with the Afghan
government were held in Kabul and that the U.S.-led International
Security Assistance Force, facilitated travel for the Taliban from their
sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The reports said the talks had
deliberately excluded Mullah Mohammad Omar, the head of the Quetta
Shura, the leadership council that controls Taliban forces in southern
and eastern Afghanistan from the western Pakistani city of Quetta, and
circumvented the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.

U.S. intelligence thinks that the ISI supports the Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, which Islamabad denies.

A
Department of Defense spokeswoman said she could not comment on the
allegation of an "information operation." She also would not say whether
there had been high-level peace talks, stating: "That's really
something for the Afghan government to discuss."

The Quetta Shura denied Thursday that senior council members had taken part in peace talks.

"The
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan refutes outright these false claims,
neither has it sent any delegations for talks and neither does it intend
to negotiate at a time when the country is under occupation," said a
statement posted on the council's English-language website.

U.S.
officials said there are talks in which mid- and low-level insurgent
commanders and their fighters have switched sides to join local militias
created under a U.S.-backed reintegration initiative.

There also
have been meetings, some facilitated by coalition forces and other
countries, between Afghan officials and insurgent leaders to explore
ideas on the form and substance of possible negotiations, they said.

"I
have had personal meetings with some Taliban leaders. Some of my
colleagues have had meetings with the Taliban both in Afghanistan and
outside Afghanistan," Karzai said in an Oct. 15 interview with al
Jazeera English television news.

"But those contacts have been
more countrymen to countrymen. That type of talks. Unofficial contacts
that sometimes they initiated, that sometimes we initiated," he said.

U.S.
intelligence officials have "some question" about whether the insurgent
leaders participating in these contacts have any authority to engage in
peace talks, said a second knowledgeable U.S. official, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The
contacts were "not Reykjavik (the site of U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms
negotiations), the U.N. Security Council or the Paris peace talks (that
ended the Vietnam War)," the official said.

U.S. officials and
Afghanistan experts said insurgent leaders have no incentive at the
moment to engage in serious talks. They pointed out that insurgents
still hold sway over large swaths of Afghanistan despite sustaining
significant losses in Army Gen. David Petraeus' intensified
counterinsurgency drive and stepped-up night raids by U.S. Special
Operations Forces.

"We have the impression that all of the
commanders that have been taken out have been replaced quite quickly,"
said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a respected
independent policy institute. On a scale of one to 100, Ruttig put
progress on peace talks "at somewhere between one and two."

"That
(psychological warfare) is exactly what it is," said a former senior
U.S. official in touch with the White House. "Petraeus has been upping
the attack on the Taliban, and trying to intimidate, and at the same
time, reaching out : 'let's talk.'" The former senior official requested
anonymity to avoid jeopardizing ties with the Obama administration.

While
publicity about peace talks is partly psychological maneuvering, the
former senior official said that Petraeus' strategy of escalating
attacks while expressing a desire for diplomacy "seems to me certainly
worth trying." He added: "I don't know if it'll work."

Insurgents
think that President Barack Obama's announcement last December that the
110,000 U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011 means that the
United States is leaving Afghanistan and all they have to do is wait,
according to experts.

Furthermore, they said, the Pakistani
military remains unwilling to close down the Haqqani network or the
Quetta Shura, seeing them as instruments for securing a government in
Kabul that will forge closer ties with Islamabad than with Pakistan's
its arch-rival, India.

"High-level (peace) talks cannot
meaningfully occur without the tacit or explicit acceptance of the ISI,"
said ret. Army Col. Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the National
Defense University.

(John Walcott contributed)

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