U.S. launches new push to secure Afghan peace talks

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 11, 2012 8:08 PM
U.S. launches new push to secure Afghan peace talks

By Missy Ryan and Warren Strobel

(Reuters) - Seeing a new glimmer of hope in its effort to broker Afghan peace talks, the Obama administration is launching a fresh round of shuttle diplomacy with an immediate goal of sealing agreement for Taliban insurgents to open a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Marc Grossman, President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, begins a diplomatic blitz this weekend that includes talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and top officials in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In Kabul, Grossman will seek approval from Karzai - whose support for a U.S. effort he fears will sideline his government has wavered - to move ahead with a series of good-faith measures seen as an essential precursor to negotiations that could give the Taliban a shared role in governing Afghanistan.

The goal is to move the talks beyond the current, mostly logistical discussions of mutual "confidence-building measures" between parties fighting on the battlefield.

"We are trying to get from conversations about confidence-building measures to negotiations between Afghans and the Taliban," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The diplomatic initiative, which includes a possible transfer of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo prison, as Reuters first reported last month, has emerged as an increasingly important track of Obama's Afghan strategy.

Almost a year of behind-the-scenes efforts by U.S. negotiators appear to be bearing initial fruit as the Taliban comes close to taking steps toward what U.S. officials hope might become authentic talks on Afghanistan's political future.

Karzai's support would allow the administration to lock in a sequence of confidence-building measures that include the opening of the Taliban office; the transfer of senior Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo to detention in Qatar; and a Taliban statement distancing itself from terrorism and expressing willingness to take part in a political process.

The role of the sometimes mercurial Karzai is crucial because he has expressed doubts about how Washington has handled the negotiations and, senior U.S. officials said, asked last December for a "pause" in the process.

A breakthrough would mark a milestone for the Obama administration, struggling to secure a modicum of stability in Afghanistan as it presses ahead with its gradual extrication from a long and costly war.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)