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Mon 19 Dec 2011 11:05 AM

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Secret US, Taliban talks reach turning point

US weighing Guantanamo prisoner transfer in negotiations to end Afghan war

Secret US, Taliban talks reach turning point
The US may swap prisoners from Guatanamo Bay military prison under peace talks

After 10 months of secret dialogue with Afghanistan's
Taliban insurgents, senior US officials say the talks have reached a critical
juncture and they will soon know whether a breakthrough is possible, leading to
peace talks whose ultimate goal is to end the Afghan war.

As part of the accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy, Reuters
has learned, the United States is considering the transfer of an unspecified
number of Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay military prison into Afghan
government custody.

It has asked representatives of the Taliban to match that
confidence-building measure with some of their own. Those could include a
denunciation of international terrorism and a public willingness to enter
formal political talks with the government headed by Afghan President Hamid
Karzai.

The officials acknowledged that the Afghanistan diplomacy,
which has reached a delicate stage in recent weeks, remains a long shot. Among
the complications: US troops are drawing down and will be mostly gone by the
end of 2014, potentially reducing the incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.

Still, the senior officials, all of whom insisted on
anonymity to share new details of the mostly secret effort, suggested it has
been a much larger piece of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy than is
publicly known.

US officials have held about half a dozen meetings with
their insurgent contacts, mostly in Germany and Doha with representatives of
Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban's Quetta Shura, the officials said.

The stakes in the diplomatic effort could not be higher.

Failure would likely condemn Afghanistan to continued
conflict, perhaps even civil war, after NATO troops finish turning security
over to Karzai's weak government by the end of 2014.

Success would mean a political end to the war and the
possibility that parts of the Taliban - some hardliners seem likely to reject
the talks - could be reconciled.

The effort is now at a pivot point.

"We imagine that we're on the edge of passing into the
next phase. Which is actually deciding that we've got a viable channel and
being in a position to deliver" on mutual confidence-building measures,
said a senior US official.

While some US-Taliban contacts have been previously
reported, the extent of the underlying diplomacy and the possible prisoner
transfer have not been made public until now.

There are slightly fewer that 20 Afghan citizens at
Guantanamo, according to various accountings. It is not known which ones might
be transferred, nor what assurances the White House has that the Karzai
government would keep them in its custody.

Guantanamo detainees have been released to foreign
governments - and sometimes set free by them - before. But the transfer as part
of a diplomatic negotiation appears unprecedented.

The reconciliation effort, which has already faced setbacks
including a supposed Taliban envoy who turned out to be an imposter, faces
hurdles on multiple fronts, the US officials acknowledged.

They include splits within the Taliban; suspicion from
Karzai and his advisers; and Pakistan's insistence on playing a major, even
dominating, role in Afghanistan's future.

Obama will likely face criticism, including from Republican
presidential candidates, for dealing with an insurgent group that has killed US
soldiers and advocates a strict Islamic form of government.

But US officials say that the Afghan war, like others before
it, will ultimately end in a negotiated settlement.

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"The challenges are enormous," a second senior US
official acknowledged. "But if you're where we are ... you can't not try.
You have to find out what's out there."

If the effort advances, one of the next steps would be more
public, unequivocal US support for establishing a Taliban office outside of
Afghanistan.

US officials said they have told the Taliban they must not
use that office for fundraising, propaganda or constructing a shadow
government, but only to facilitate future negotiations that could eventually
set the stage for the Taliban to reenter Afghan governance.

On Sunday, a senior member of Afghanistan's High Peace
Council said the Taliban had indicated it was willing to open an office in an
Islamic country.

But underscoring the fragile nature of the multi-sided
diplomacy, Karzai last week announced he was recalling Afghanistan's ambassador
to Qatar, after reports that nation was readying the opening of the Taliban
office. Afghan officials complained they were left out of the loop.

On a possible transfer of Taliban prisoners long held at
Guantanamo, US officials stressed the move would be a 'national decision' made
in consultation with the US Congress.

Obama is expected to soon sign into law the 2011 defense
authorization bill, including changes that would broaden the military's power
over terror detainees and require the Pentagon to certify in most cases that
certain security conditions will be met before Guantanamo prisoners can be sent
home.

Ten years after the repressive Taliban government was
toppled, a hoped-for political resolution has become central to US strategy to
end a war that has killed nearly 3,000 foreign troops and cost the Pentagon
alone $330 billion.

While Obama's decision to deploy an extra 30,000 troops in
2009-10 helped push the Taliban out of much of its southern heartland, the war
is far from over. Militants remain able to slip in and out of lawless areas of
Pakistan, where the Taliban's senior leadership is located.

Bold attacks from the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network
have undermined the narrative of improving security and raised questions about
how well an inexperienced Afghan military will be able to cope when foreign
troops go home.

In that uncertain context, officials say that initial
contacts with insurgent representatives since US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton publicly embraced a diplomatic strategy in a Feb. 18, 2011, speech have
centered on establishing whether the Taliban was open to reconciliation,
despite its pledge to continue its 'sacred jihad' against NATO and US soldiers.

"The question has been to the Taliban, 'You have got a
choice to make. Life's moving on," the second US official said.
"There's a substantial military campaign out there that will continue to
do you substantial damage ... Are you prepared to go forward with some kind of
reconciliation process?"

US officials have met with Tayeb Agha, who was a secretary
to Mullah Omar, and they have held one meeting arranged by Pakistan with Ibrahim
Haqqani, a brother of the Haqqani network's founder. They have not shut the
door to further meetings with the Haqqani group, which is blamed for a brazen
attack this fall on the US embassy in Kabul and which US officials link closely
to Pakistan's intelligence agency.

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US officials say they have kept Karzai informed of the
process and have met with him before and after each encounter, but they
declined to confirm whether representatives of his government are present at
those meetings.

Officials now see themselves on the verge of reaching a
second phase in the peace process that, if successful, would clinch the
confidence-building measures and allow them to move to a third stage in which
the Afghan government and the Taliban would sit down in talks facilitated by
the United States.

"That's why it's especially delicate -- because if we
don't deliver the second phase, we don't get to the pay-dirt," the first
senior US official said.

Senior administration officials say that confidence-building
measures must be implemented, not merely agreed to, before full-fledged
political talks can begin. The sequence of such measures has not been
determined, and they will ultimately be announced by Afghans, they say.

Underlying the efforts of US negotiators are fundamental
questions about whether - and why - the Taliban would want to strike a deal
with the Western-backed Karzai government.

US officials stress that the 'end conditions' they want the
Taliban to embrace - renouncing violence, breaking with al Qaeda, and
respecting the Afghan constitution - are not preconditions to starting talks.

Encouraging trends on the Afghan battlefield - declining
militant attacks and a thinning of the Taliban's mid-level leadership - are one
reason why US officials believe the Taliban may be more likely now to engage in
substantive talks.

They also cite what they see as an overlooked, subtle shift
in the Taliban's position, based in part on statements this year from Mullah Omar
that, despite fiery rhetoric, indicate some openness to talks. They also
condemn civilian deaths and advocate development of Afghanistan's economy.

In July, the Taliban reiterated its long-standing position
of rejecting talks as long as foreign troops remain. In October, a senior
Haqqani commander said the United States was insincere about peace.

But US officials say the Taliban no longer wants to be the
global pariah it was in the 1990s. Some elements have suggested flexibility on
issues of priority for the West, such as protecting rights for women and girls.

"That's one of the reasons why we think this is
serious," a third senior US official said.

Yet as it moves ahead the peace initiative is fraught with
challenge.

At least one purported insurgent representative has turned
out to be a fraud, highlighting the difficulty of vetting potential brokers in
the shadowy world of the militants.

And it as dealt a major blow in September when former Afghan
President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed Karzai's peace efforts, was
assassinated in an attack Afghanistan said originated in neighboring Pakistan.

Since then, Karzai has been more ambivalent, ruling out an
early resumption in talks. He said Afghanistan would talk only to Pakistan 'until
we have an address for the Taliban.'

The dust-up over the unofficial Taliban office in Qatar,
with a spokesman for Karzai stressing that Afghanistan must lead peace
negotiations to end the war, suggests tensions in the US and Afghan approaches
to the peace process.

Speaking in an interview with CNN aired on Sunday, Karzai
counseled caution in making sure that Taliban interlocutors are authentic --
and authentically seeking peace. The Rabbani killing, he said, "brought us
in a shock to the recognition that we were actually talking to nobody."

Critics of Obama's peace initiative are deeply skeptical of
the Taliban's willingness to negotiate given that the West's intent to pull out
most troops after 2014 would give insurgents a chance to reclaim lost territory
or nudge the weak Kabul government toward collapse.

While the United States is expected to keep a modest
military presence in Afghanistan beyond then, all of Obama's 'surge' troops
will be home by next fall and the administration - looking to refocus on
domestic priorities -- is already exploring further reductions.

Another reason to be circumspect is the potential spoiler
role of Pakistan, which has so far resisted US pressure to crack down on
militants fueling violence in Afghanistan.

Such considerations make for a divisive initiative within
the Obama administration. Few officials describe themselves as optimists about
the peace initiative; at the State Department, formally leading the talks,
senior officials see the odds of brokering a successful agreement at only
around 30 percent.

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"There's a very real likelihood that these guys aren't
serious ... which is why are continuing to prosecute all of the lines of effort
here," the third senior US official said.

While NATO commanders promise they will keep up pressure on
militants as the troop force shrinks, they are facing a tenacious insurgency in
eastern Afghanistan that may prove even more challenging than the south.

Still, with Obama committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan,
as the United States did last week from Iraq, the administration has few
alternatives but to pursue what may well prove to be a quixotic quest for a
deal.

"Wars end, and the end of wars have political
consequences," the second official said. "You can either try to shape
those, or someone does it to you."