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Afghan Peace Talks Face Tough Obstacles

Preliminary contacts have opened between the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and some elements of the Taliban on possible peace negotiations. It is not clear at what level the peace feelers are taking place. But all the parties with a stake in any Afghan peace talks have different and often conflicting policy goals of what any talks might achieve.

Just who is participating in these first tentative talks, which by all accounts are solely between the Karzai government and the Taliban - and what they are discussing is shrouded in secrecy.

But U.N. al-Qaida-Taliban Monitoring Team coordinator Richard Barrett tells VOA the talks, preliminary as they are, are being propelled by a realization on all sides that a military solution will not work. "I think the time is propitious because everybody realizes now that the fighting is not going to take them anywhere. Everybody has got time pressures. You of course have domestic pressure here in the United States. The war is becoming less popular, people are asking more questions about it, and I think that there is more desire for it to end. And that is true even more so in other troop-contributing states," he said.

The Taliban continues to deny that any discussions have taken place, insisting that foreign forces must leave Afghanistan before there are any talks. But analysts say that stand is a bid to keep the movement together as things move into a political phase.

The United States says the Taliban must first lay down their arms, renounce al-Qaida, and accept the Afghan constitution.

Former EU Special Envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell says these are really negotiating points. "I do not believe for a minute that these will be preconditions. These are issues to be discussed at the table of negotiations, but not as preconditions. I think most of us have seen it this way from the beginning, just as the Taliban preconditions - that they will not sit at the table until the Western forces have withdrawn - will stand. I think that this again will be another issue for discussion," he said.

No one can predict with any certainty what the end political solution will be. But Francesc Vendrell thinks it will involve not a coalition government, but some other form of local and regional level power-sharing.

"A coalition, personally, I do not see it. I do not think it is realistic, or if it were, it would last a few days. Power-sharing, under which the Taliban commanders would exert power in some provinces and districts in the south and possibly the east, I think that is different. I think that is more conceivable," Francesc said.

The Obama administration is to begin another review of its Afghan policy in December. If conditions permit, President Obama would like to start phasing out the U.S. troop presence beginning in July.

But some analysts believe any negotiated solution will require at least some foreign troop presence to remain to guarantee security. Richard Barrett says the Taliban may not like it, but in the end it may be their best protection against a repeat of 1992, when victorious anti-Soviet mujahedin fighters took to battling each other, setting off a civil war.

"Having American forces or other forces there for a period actually allows greater stability while a new political process can get under way and a new government can get sort of established. So I think that in the back of their minds, the Taliban will say, 'We do not want fighting, we do not want this very, very prominent presence of foreign troops that we have at the moment, but we do understand that there has to be some sort of guarantee of stability while we sort our own problems out," he said.

Neighboring Pakistan has a stake in the talks and would like to have a say in the outcome. But Francesc Vendrell says Pakistan's role in the new talks, if there is any, remains murky.

"The imponderable is, is Pakistan trying to sabotage these efforts? Are they simply neutral? Are the U.S. [officials] able to persuade the Pakistani army and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] to at least deny themselves the temptation to sabotage such contacts unless they are through them [the Pakistanis]? I do not know," Vendrall said.

Pakistan is deeply concerned about growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Analysts say it is this fear that drives at least some elements of the Pakistani army and intelligence services to, officially or unofficially, back the Taliban as a strategic hedge against Indian influence in the Karzai government. U.S. officials remain concerned that Pakistan has not been sufficiently aggressive in Washington's view in eradicating the Pakistan-based Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries.