KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — After more than a decade of warfare, negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are set to begin, officials, diplomats and experts said as President Ashraf Ghani declared that peace is closer now than at any time since the war began following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
On Saturday, Ghani said that "the grounds for peace have never been better in the last 36 years" of continuous Afghan wars, including 13 years of conflict with the Taliban.
Since taking office in September, Ghani has rolled out a complex strategy aimed at forcing the Taliban leadership to accept that their cause — replacing his government with an Islamist emirate — is hopeless. He has enlisted the support of regional countries believed to protect, fund and arm the Taliban, including Pakistan which is pressuring the insurgents to open a channel for peace negotiations, officials and diplomats said.
A senior Afghan official, who spoke on condition he not be identified as he was not authorized to discuss the issue, said hopes are high that a dialogue, as a precursor to full-scale peace negotiations, will begin soon.
Other sources said contact between the two sides could begin as early as March. There is currently no dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to officially brief the media.
Speaking at a joint press conference Saturday with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Ghani said: "Our approach is productive. We are hopeful. The direction is positive but we cannot make premature announcements."
The Taliban, whose leadership is based in the Pakistani cities of Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar, declined to comment on the prospect of peace negotiations, repeating their long-held position that all foreign troops must first leave the country.
The U.S. and NATO have around 13,000 troops in Afghanistan training Afghan security forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida. President Barack Obama's current plan is to halve the 10,000 Americans by the end of this year, and cut that number to near zero by the end of 2016. At the peak of the war in 2009-10 there were 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
But Carter on Saturday hinted that the current withdrawal timeline might be up for review, at Ghani's request. Carter did not say Obama was considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, only that the president was rethinking the pace of troop withdrawals for 2015 and 2016 and was "rethinking the details" of the U.S. counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan.
No decisions have been made, but Obama will discuss a range of options for slowing the U.S. military withdrawal when Ghani visits the White House next month, Carter said. He added that the willingness of Washington to reconsider its withdrawal plans is a sign of increased faith in the reliability of Ghani's government, compared with that of his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
If the schedule for U.S. troop withdrawal does indeed change, it is unclear just how that would affect Ghani's fragile negotiation plans with the Taliban; so far Taliban representatives have not commented publicly on the upcoming talks.
"The less noise there is from the Taliban, the more it may mean; silence will speak volumes," said Michael Keating, a senior consulting fellow at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs and a former deputy special representative of the U.N. in Afghanistan.
Drawing China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into pressuring Pakistan to end its support for the insurgents appeared to be a deliberate strategy by Ghani, he said, "not just for peace but for the economic prospects of the country."
China, which has ties to the Taliban dating back to the 1990s when the extremists held power, has close relations with Pakistan. Beijing's Foreign Ministry recently reiterated support for Afghan peace efforts. Chinese interests are pragmatic, based on concerns about the radicalization of its own Muslim population, dominant in the Xinjiang region bordering northern Afghanistan, and its long-term goal of developing Afghanistan's petrochemical and mining sectors.
Pakistan has in the past used the Taliban as a proxy to intimidate the Afghan government as it developed relations with Washington and Islamabad's arch-rival India after the Taliban's overthrow in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Without Pakistan's unconditional support, the Taliban could be forced into dialogue with Ghani's government if it is to achieve its goal of regaining a political foothold in Kabul, academics and officials said.
"Pakistan's bottom line is strong political representation in the Kabul government," said Antonio Giustozzi, an expert on the Taliban. "There is also a concern for the long-term solidity of this representation __ maybe embedding some form of permanent power for clerics in the constitution or some de facto Taliban-controlled paramilitary force," he said.
As political pressure intensifies, the Taliban are also expected to launch a vicious spring offensive once the snowmelt on the mountainous border gives Pakistan-based militants access to Afghan targets. The insurgents are expected to test the capabilities of Afghanistan's forces, who are fighting for the first time without international military backup.
Ahead of Carter's visit, Ghani said Kabul and Islamabad, which is battling its own Taliban insurgency, had put decades of mutual hostility aside to cooperate on ending the violence.
Two recent horrific incidents — one each side of the border — galvanized "the determination and struggle of both countries against terrorism and extremism," Ghani said. "We welcome the recent position Pakistan has taken in pronouncing Afghanistan's enemy as Pakistan's enemy."
In December at least 45 people were killed in Afghanistan's Paktika province, bordering Pakistan, when a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a volleyball match. The attack bore the hallmarks of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network though no group claimed responsibility. A month later, a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar killed 150 people, mostly children.
The Peshawar attack sparked intense shuttle diplomacy between Kabul and Islamabad, leading to unprecedented cooperation between their military and intelligence agencies. Meetings between the two neighbors are often attended by U.S. and NATO military leaders.
Amid the cautious optimism, few logistical details have emerged. The Taliban have an office in Qatar's capital Doha, where a Taliban source and a Western diplomat said at least one meeting between the insurgents and American officials had taken place to discuss issues likely to arise if and when peace negotiations do begin. The issues include the release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, the removal of Taliban names from lists of known terrorists, and freedom of travel for Taliban members, the diplomat said.
"These are issues that only the Americans can give assurances on," he said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter. "If they get past these issues, it makes things a little easier for the Afghan government and the Taliban to proceed toward talks."
Follow Lynne O'Donnell on Twitter at —https://twitter.com/lynnekodonnell