US Still Taking a Hard Line on Peace Talks with Taliban

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

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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