US launches new push to secure Afghan peace talks

Marc Grossman begins a diplomatic blitz this weekend that includes talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

Washington: 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 has wavered for a US effort he fears will sideline his government - 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, has emerged as an increasingly important track of Obama`s Afghan strategy.

Almost a year of behind-the-scenes efforts by US negotiators appear to be bearing initial fruit as the Taliban comes close to taking steps toward what US 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 US 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.

But US officials acknowledge that after months of tentative outreach, it remains unclear whether the Taliban is willing to enter full-fledged political negotiations with an Afghan government it sees as weak and illegitimate.

"There`s another option: that they`re not serious," a second senior administration official said. "We`re eyes wide open about this."

While most foreign combat troops are slated to be gone from Afghanistan by 2015, the Taliban and its allies remain potent adversaries more than a decade after the Taliban government was ousted. Over 400 US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 2011, the second highest yearly total since the war began in 2001.

US officials said they believed the militant group, whose leaders are based over the porous border with Pakistan, were now more likely to strike a deal after a US troop increase that Washington credits with markedly weakening the Taliban`s military power.

Bureau Report