Afghan President Hamid Karzai has confirmed reports that his government has been holding talks with the Taliban. The U.S. envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, said the United States supports the Afghan government's continuing contact with the Taliban.
NATO troops in Afghanistan continue their drive to flush out Taliban fighters from southern Kandahar province, their traditional stronghold. In this river valley known as Arghendab, U.S. troops have taken control of some new areas. But rather than fight, the Taliban melted away. So now the troops have another tough job, to win over locals sympathetic to the Taliban.
In Kabul on Monday, President Hamid Karzai confirmed he is trying another tack: attempting to win over moderates in the Taliban. He appointed former president Burhanuddin Rabbani on Sunday to head a new peace council to promote talks with insurgent groups.
"God willing, with your presence in this council and your hard work, Afghanistan will achieve the peace that its nation has been hoping for for a long time," said Karzai.
"Peace is not impossible. We will achieve it with the help of God, but we need each others' support and hard work," said Rabbani.
Later, in a CNN interview, Mr. Karzai said his government has been holding unofficial talks with the Taliban for some time. He said, though, that he will continue to work against those who he called "ideologically against Afghanistan" or who engage in terror attacks against the United States or Pakistan.
The U.S has given qualified support for the talks. On Monday, Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, held a news conference in Germany. "We support them [Afghan officials], provided they follow the red lines that are absolutely critical, because we have a strategic interest here, that anyone deciding to rejoin the political system in Afghanistan has to renounce al-Qaida, lay down their arms and participate in the constitution of the country," he said.
Although the Taliban officially has dismissed reconciliation talks, saying international forces must first leave Afghanistan, some Afghanistan experts in Washington also are pressing for reconciliation.
The new Afghan Study Group is spearheaded by Matthew Hoh, a former Marine officer who fought in Afghanistan and now works as an analyst at the New America Foundation. He says accepting the Afghan constitution should not even be a pre-condition for talks. "Until you reach some degree of political accord where you bring in those groups that are now supporting Taliban because they feel excluded from the government, you will not have stability necessary to achieve anything," said Hoh.
The study group says the military effort in Afghanistan should be tied to achieving reconciliation among the various political groups, including the Taliban. For that, it says, the U.S. needs only air and naval power, not a large number of troops on the ground.