By ANNE GEARAN and KATHY GANNON
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration hopes to restore momentum in the spring to U.S. talks with the Taliban insurgency that had reached a critical point before falling apart this month because of objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
One goal of renewed talks with the insurgents would be to identify cease-fire zones that could be used as a steppingstone toward a full peace agreement that stops most fighting, a senior administration official told The Associated Press. It's a goal that so far has remained far out of reach.
U.S. officials from the State Department and White House plan to continue a series of secret meetings with Taliban representatives in Europe and the Persian Gulf region next year, two officials said, assuming a small group of Taliban emissaries the U.S. considers legitimate remains willing.
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive and precarious American outreach to the Taliban leadership.
The U.S. outreach this year had fits and starts but had progressed to the point that there was active discussion of two steps the Taliban seeks as precursors to negotiations, the senior U.S. official said. Talks are on an unofficial hiatus at Karzai's request, U.S. and other officials said.
The trust-building measures under discussion involve a would-be Taliban headquarters office and the release from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of about five Afghan prisoners considered affiliated with the Taliban. Those steps were to be matched by assurances from at least part of the Taliban leadership that the insurgents would cut ties with al-Qaida, accept the elected civilian government of Afghanistan and bargain in good faith.
The U.S. describes its current Afghan policy as "fight, talk, build," and maintains that it will not back off the military campaign that has ended Taliban control of key southern areas that had been the movement's mainstay. The Taliban remains a potent fighting force and has shifted operations to other parts of the country.
Just Friday, for instance, a NATO service member died in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan, while allied and Afghan forces killed three senior Taliban figures and captured 11 fighters and sympathizers, according to the alliance.
Although top U.S. military commanders say they cannot kill their way to military victory in Afghanistan, targeted raids on Taliban operatives are one of the tactical success stories of President Barack Obama's shift in strategy that favors counter-terrorism tactics.
The longer-term strategic effect of those tactics is less clear; nighttime kill-and-capture raids, in which a number of civilians have died, have become a flashpoint for anger over foreign meddling in Afghanistan. Karzai has demanded that foreign troops stop breaking into homes.
The U.S. administration wants to use its current extensive military campaign and an acknowledged but incomplete plan for a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan as leverage to draw the Taliban to talks with Karzai's representatives.
The gradual process of handing over areas of the country to Afghan security control would ideally be marshaled toward encouraging peace talks, by identifying areas where a test ceasefire could be tried, the official said.
More generally, the U.S. is trying to unify disparate elements of its strategy in Afghanistan after 10 tiring years of war and with an eye on the NATO deadline to withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014.
The likelihood that the Taliban insurgency continues as a fighting force after most foreign forces leave is driving the U.S. and NATO to seek even an incomplete bargain with the insurgents that would keep them talking with the Kabul government.
The U.S. goal is to midwife talks between the insurgents and the U.S.-backed Afghan government led by Karzai, who frequently has felt sidelined by the U.S. as it pursues talks with his enemies. He bills peace talks as an Afghan-led process, which the U.S. insists is also its goal. The U.S. outreach is meant to jump-start negotiations, U.S. officials have said, but they acknowledge that their efforts can feed the perception that Karzai is not fully in charge.
Although the Karzai government shares the goal of outreach and eventual political reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban movement, he resents the insurgents' demand only to speak with what they call American occupiers. He has argued that the U.S. undercuts his leverage, and his inner circle derailed initial U.S.-Taliban talks earlier this year, several officials previously told the AP.
With Obama planning to host a large NATO summit in his hometown of Chicago this spring, the administration would like some good news to announce.
Short of a clear military turning point in a war that is still stalemated in many areas, the summit is likely to focus on efforts to shore up the country while encouraging a political settlement with the Taliban.
One hope for the summit is a more coherent statement of how the military campaign is related to the effort to hand over areas of the country to Afghan control, the long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Taliban reconciliation, the senior U.S. official said.
The Taliban headquarters office idea is seen the most likely to regain traction ahead of the summit in May, but it's unclear when it might open. A political office in a neutral third country would be authorized to conduct talks on a peaceful end to the 10-year war.
Karzai remains opposed to the more difficult prisoner transfer plan, which is further complicated by new congressional restrictions on any prisoner transfers. The U.S. tentatively had agreed to transfer a handful of Afghan prisoners to house arrest in a third country, probably Qatar, before the deal unraveled, U.S. officials said.
The Associated Press has learned the identity of some of the proposed transferees, including Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander believed responsible for sectarian killings before the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001.
Karzai's own advisers seeking peace with the Taliban had named those men among several Afghan Taliban prisoners it wanted released from Guantanamo as a goodwill gesture, but Karzai wants the prisoners to come to Afghanistan, not a third country, a senior Afghan official in the region said.
Sending Afghans to an Arab country could offend Afghans' sense of sovereignty and suggest that the U.S. does not think Afghanistan is fit to hold or try the men, officials said.
"As soon as I was released, I met President Karzai and he promised that he would not allow Afghan prisoners to be sent anywhere except Afghanistan," said Haji Ruhollah, an Afghan who was released from Guantanamo in 2010. "They are all Afghans and they should be brought and kept in Afghanistan."
U.S. and Afghan officials also pointed to Karzai's longstanding unease with what he sees as a rush by the U.S. to broker deals ahead of the planned exit of U.S. combat forces
Karzai has political problems at home, including newly resurgent militias, and the assassination of his chief peace negotiator in September clouds his own outreach to the Taliban.
The U.S. once swore off direct talks with the Taliban until the insurgents essentially were beaten but shifted position as the war dragged on near stalemate. Participants said they still consider a peace deal a long shot, and the insurgent leadership has shown no sign that it wants to stop fighting a guerrilla war it thinks it can sustain until after most foreign forces depart.
The Associated Press is not identifying U.S. officials involved in the direct talks, in consideration for their safety. One member of the Taliban negotiating team has been publicly identified as Tayyab Aga, an emissary of Pakistan-based Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Other participants include a former Taliban ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a former Taliban deputy health minister, the senior Afghan official said.
Karzai has supported the general idea of an office, preferably in Afghanistan, but he balked when the plan for Qatar appeared to have been settled without him, officials said. Earlier this month, Kabul recalled its ambassador to Qatar for consultations over reports that the Taliban was planning to open an office there.
On Tuesday, Karzai backed down. He said his government would accept the Qatar office to hold peace talks, although Saudi Arabia or Turkey would be preferable venues.
Gannon reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Patrick Quinn in Kabul contributed to this report.