Afghanistan's government and Pakistan's military and intelligence services are moving forward toward cutting deals with senior Afghan insurgents, filling a vacuum created by American skepticism.
In the last few weeks senior Afghan officials have met with the head of Pakistan's army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to talk about the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura, two leading Afghan insurgent groups whose leadership are believed to be hiding inside Pakistan.
The Afghan government has tried to seize momentum created by a recent peace assembly in Kabul, and Pakistan has quickly become more willing to talk after the forced resignations of two senior Afghan officials skeptical of reconciliation efforts, according to Afghan and Pakistani officials.
At the same time, the United States has become increasingly publicly doubtful of the concept of reconciling with high-level insurgent leaders. Afghan officials seem nonplussed by the American skepticism, and are moving forward on multiple fronts, despite the American insistence that talks begin only after the U.S. military creates momentum in the Taliban's heartland.
"The biggest tragedy for the United States is, 'Why are we not in the middle of things?,'" says a senior Afghan government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the government's reconciliation efforts.
A Western official in Afghanistan says he believes the Karzai government is losing faith in the West's ability to bring security to Afghanistan, and is therefore increasing its attempts to reach out to Pakistan to create peace talks. The official said the Karzai government's latest indication of a lack of Western commitment to Afghanistan came from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who last weekend announced he wanted all British troops out of Afghanistan within five years.
Believing the only way to bring peace in Afghanistan is cutting a political deal, the Afghan government has been working with the Pakistani military and the ISI to begin dialogues with senior insurgent leaders. The focus right now seems to be on the father/son team of Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani, who live in the Pakistani tribal areas and largely control a corridor from eastern Afghanistan all the way into Kabul.
Pakistan May Be Key to Taliban Negotiations
"We don't need to deal with Haqqani directly. We can deal with the ISI," says the senior Afghan government official.
The ISI and the Pakistani military have long maintained links to the Haqqani network, which, unlike other terror groups, have never attacked targets in Pakistan. That has meant the relationship remains intact.
"Pakistan has the ultimate card for the Afghan solution," said a Pakistani intelligence official.
Siraj Haqqani, who is an experienced negotiator and will likely expect something in return for any deal, has been directly involved in the talks, the intelligence official said.
Asked how far along the talks were, the Afghan senior official would only say that the talks with the Pakistani leadership and the Haqqani network "are all the way to the top."
The United States encourages the bilateral dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but is nowhere near ready for Siraj Haqqani to be part of talks. American officials blame the Haqqani network for nearly all major attacks in Kabul, countless attacks on American soldiers in eastern Afghanistan, and sheltering senior al Qaeda leaders in North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area.
The general U.S. skepticism toward talking to its enemies has become increasingly public. CIA Director Leon Panetta went farther than most American officials recently when he said told ABC's Jake Tapper on "This Week" that reconciliation efforts were a non-starter until the United States made more progress in Afghanistan.
"We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society," Panetta said.
"We've seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they're convinced that the United States is going to win and that they're going to be defeated, I think it's very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that's going to be meaningful," Panetta added.
But Afghan and Pakistani officials dismiss that thinking, with one calling it a "false premise."
Karzai to Announce High Council of Peace
"If you know Afghans, you know that thinking is wrong," says the Afghan senior official. "If you make an Afghan feel weak, then you end up forcing him to be the opposite of what the U.S. thinks he will become."
For their part, the Pakistanis seem to have concluded that Karzai was becoming more serious about including them on reintegration talks. Last month, the head of Afghan's spy agency, Amrullah Saleh, and Interior Minister Hanif Atmar both resigned after a contentious meeting with Karzai during which he doubted their abilities to bring security to the country.
Although Karzai and his staff have denied that the two officials' resignations had anything to do with reconciliation efforts, Pakistan saw the resignations as "Karzai beginning to communicate" with Pakistan, according to a senior Pakistani official.
"With these kinds of people around, there could not be rapprochement. They were completely biased toward the Indians," says the Pakistani official, who requested anonymity to discuss reconciliation efforts. "The stumbling blocks have been removed."
In the next few days Karzai will announce the creation of the High Council of Peace, the first time that the government has announced an official strategy for low-level reintegration and high level reconciliation and the funding to go along with it, according to Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer.
The U.S. has been waiting for the announcement in order to institutionalize what have been "ad hoc" and "uneven" efforts so far to reintegrate low-level fighters back into society, according to a senior military official.
Since the beginning of the year, commanders have been allowed to purse reintegration and conflict resolution "however they wanted to," but "until there was a program, there's not a lot we could do," the senior U.S. military official says.
For the foreseeable future, those low-level efforts seem to be the only ones that the United States will be willing to pursue. Afghanistan and Pakistan, meanwhile, continue to become more serious about high-level reconciliation.
U.S. civilian and military officials agree that Pakistan can help deliver the Haqqani network to the negotiating table. But they are more skeptical Pakistan can do the same with the Taliban leadership council believed to be centered in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi, in part because many mid-level commanders in Afghanistan are not as closely connected to Taliban leader Mullah Omar as their predecessors were.
Taliban Talks Worry Afghan Minorities
For that reason, they say, reconciliation talks are not likely to proceed beyond early stages until the United States supports them.
The Afghan leadership seems to be getting impatient. "We're very comfortable with these issues. But it's going to be extremely difficult without having the U.S. on board," laments the senior Afghan official.
At the same time, American officials and many Afghan politicians are worried that reconciliation with insurgents will come at the expense of Afghanistan's minority groups.
Leaders from the country's Tajik and Hazara communities are beginning to come out against what they see as Karzai's single-minded focus on reconciling insurgents, who are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns. They complain that Karzai, who is also Pashtun, is making decisions behind closed doors and shutting out the democratically elected parliament
"President Karzai would like to bring some of his friends on board who are with Taliban now. He has been influenced by his personal emotions rather than politics," says Fauzia Kofi, a leading Tajik member of parliament from northeast Afghanistan. "Reconciliation will not result with peace in Afghanistan. Peace is a result of democracy. You have to involve everyone in that process."
Some American officials admit that they worry reconciliation might encourage Tajik-Pashtun ethnic violence.
"It has the potential to really tear this country apart," Admiral Mullen told The New York Times last week. "That's not what we are going to permit."