KABUL, Afghanistan - After nearly one year of direct negotiations with the United States, the Taliban is about to open its first official office, according to Afghan and Western officials, the most significant sign yet that the U.S. has decided an expedited political solution is the only way to end the war in Afghanistan.
The office is expected to open as early as the next few months in Qatar, the officials told ABC News, and facilitate negotiations with the Taliban that will include unprecedented local ceasefires in Afghanistan and the transfer of Afghan prisoners from American prisons - even though they are labeled "high risk" to the U.S. and associated with the death of a CIA officer in 2001.
Direct negotiations between the United States and the Taliban began early this year and sped up starting in the summer, in part because the White House has doubts about the military's ability to decisively win the war, according to two Western officials. The war's costs, widespread corruption in the Afghan government, Pakistani intransigence and continued violence in eastern Afghanistan - even as violence in southern Afghanistan decreases - have led many to lower expectations for what can be accomplished by a shrinking number of U.S. troops. Negotiations with the very people who have been killing American service members are now seen as the only way to salvage a positive outcome.
"Insurgencies end with political processes," said a senior administration official. "We have been very clear that we are open to a reconciliation process provided Taliban who engage in it recognize that the process will be Afghan-led and that at the end of the day they break ties with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept the Afghan Constitution, including its protections of women's and human rights."
The details of the Taliban office were described by Afghan officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity and confirmed by Western officials. U.S. officials declined comment for the record.
"This is a difficult process," said an Afghan official involved in the talks. "We have come a long way."
The office is a breakthrough with parts of the Taliban who identified it as a "first sign that the US is serious about negotiations," said a senior Western official. It will open just as the Afghan government is making steps to curtail Pakistan's influence over the Taliban, according to the Afghan officials.
Virtually all of the Taliban's senior leadership live in Pakistan, and the Afghan government is hoping to move senior Taliban leaders - estimated at more than 100 families - from their homes in Pakistan across the border into Afghanistan, according to two Afghan officials involved in the peace process.
"As much as we can, we must move people out of that place," said a senior Afghan official, referring to Pakistan.
The official emphasized, though, that the Afghan government did not want to cut Pakistan out of the loop entirely. "Let's work together," the official said. "But we don't want anyone to tell us what to do… You can't beg for peace from Pakistan."
Many U.S. officials also believe that peace talks cannot work without Pakistan's help, but it's not clear whether Pakistan's intelligence and military leaders have been briefed fully on the negotiations.
Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence, is in Qatar, according to a U.S. official, presumably discussing the opening of the office. But there is still a sense in Pakistan that it is being kept in the dark, at least on a few details.
A senior Pakistani military official said today that the U.S. was on a "solo" flight in its negotiations. And in the last few months, Pakistani intelligence officials have pressured the family of one of the main Afghan negotiators, Tayyeb Agha, at the family's home in Quetta, according to a family member.
Agha himself, who is Mullah Omar's former personal secretary, has not returned to Pakistan since the negotiations with him began early in 2011, according to the family member and a former Taliban official.
At the same time as it's speeding ahead, the U.S. also seems to be reducing expectations for what can come from political talks. They are exceedingly fragile and have already been hampered by high-profile setbacks: a shopkeeper in Quetta was falsely identified as a senior Taliban negotiator; former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed by a man pretending to be a Taliban emissary; and Pakistani officials admit they arrested a key senior Taliban figure after he had started speaking with the Afghan government. (Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar's son is in fact still in prison, according to an Afghan official.)
"It's a good step to get someone talking," said a Western official, "but everyone wants to be as low key as possible before results are produced."
Transferring Detainees Deemed Highly Dangerous
As part of the negotiations, the Taliban have long identified five prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay who should be transferred as a "confidence building measure."
They include Mohammad Fazl, the former Taliban deputy defense minister; Noorullah Nori, the former Taliban governor of Balkh; Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban governor of Herat; Abdul Haq Wasiq, the former Taliban deputy intelligence chief; and Mohammad Nabi, who helped run the Taliban's finances through the informal hawala system.
A senior administration official confirmed the names, and said they have been identified by the Taliban as far back as 2005.
But any transfer or release is politically perilous in Washington. Congressional leaders briefed on the names have raised strong objections. Fazl, especially, could prove problematic for the White House if he is ever transferred to Afghan custody because of his record on human rights and his participation in a riot that killed CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann. He could also stoke ethnic tensions with Afghan officials from northern Afghanistan, with whom Fazl fought before 9/11.
Fazl is the most senior of the five and was a close friend of Mullah Omar. In 1999, Omar put him in charge of the Taliban Army in northern Afghanistan, replacing a far more popular and far more brutal commander, Dadullah, according to former Taliban officials. Fazl quickly became known as a good leader who respected his commanders.
The men he led have been accused of helping kill hundreds if not thousands of Shiites as part of a Taliban campaign against them. For that, he is listed on the UN's Taliban sanctions list.
"When asked about the murders, [Fazl] and [Noori] did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state," reads a Feb. 2008 Guantanamo assessment of Fazl that was released by Wikileaks. "[Fazl] had operational associations with significant al-Qaida and other extremist personnel… If released, [Fazl] would likely rejoin the Taliban and establish ties with anti-Coalition militias participating in hostilities against US and Coalition forces in Afghanistan."
In part, the Taliban see the transfer of these men as a form of payback for what they believe are promises broken by northern Afghan commanders in November, 2001. Former Taliban officials say that Fazl, Noori, and Khairkhwa all surrendered themselves to Gens. Daud Daud and Abdul Rashid Dostum, who were allied with the CIA - only after receiving a promise they wouldn't be turned over to the U.S.
The prisoners then revolted against their jailers, and Spann was caught in the middle and killed. There is no evidence that any of the five detainees had any direct hand in Spann's death. But after the revolt, the detainees were handed over to the U.S. and quickly became some of the first prisoners to arrive at Guantanamo.
That "betrayal," as the Taliban called it, was so well known the Taliban used it to try and recruit fighters on leaflets posted in Kandahar in May, 2002, according to the Guantanamo document.
If they do arrive in Kabul, they would likely be seen as a threat to northern Afghan leaders, whose support is ultimately required for any peace deal.
The senior administration official cautioned that any transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo would not be done without consulting Congress.
"Any transfers out of Guantanamo would be conducted consistent with U.S. law governing such transfers and with standing Administration policy to work toward a closure of Guantanamo, and ensure U.S. national security interests are protected," the official said.
"They're in a Hurry and Want to Get the Credit"
Throughout the process, the U.S. has been briefing President Hamid Karzai, three Afghan officials said. Which is why the U.S. was shocked when Karzai - after news of the Taliban office in Qatar first leaked - recalled his ambassador to Qatar. The U.S. feared that Karzai was trying to derail the process out of jealousy that his own attempts to create peace had not borne fruit or out of fear that the Taliban had successfully cut him out to speak directly to the U.S, according to a Western official.
But Afghan officials involved in the process clarified that Karzai recalled the ambassador not because of anything the U.S. had done - but because the Qataris had not officially informed anyone in the Afghan government. Even a senior Western official in Kabul defended Karzai, saying the ambassador's recall was necessary.
"Looking objectively, if he would not have done that, it would have been strange. He had to make a demonstration of displeasure," the official said. "It's a sign to the countries in the region as well that they will have to respect the honor and sovereignty of Afghanistan."
Karzai has since clarified that while he would prefer the office to open in Turkey or Saudi Arabia, he would accept Qatar if the U.S. insisted. Afghan officials see Turkey and Saudi Arabia as better able to bring Pakistan on board any talks. But Turkey was unacceptable to the Taliban because it is part of NATO's coalition in Afghanistan, according to a senior Afghan official. And according to another Afghan official, Saudi Arabia's discussions with the Taliban were "not constructive."
Still, it was clear that Karzai's unexpected move was an attempt to gain some leverage. A senior Afghan government official involved in the negotiations acknowledged that the U.S. had kept the Afghan government in the loop, but still criticized how the U.S. was proceeding.
"Their intention isn't wrong. But they're in a hurry and want to get the credit," the official said. "The best way forward is to be patient, well coordinated, consistent… and it should come from an Afghan voice."
The Taliban "Per Se Is Not Our Enemy"
Washington's desire to open the Taliban office coincides with pressure on military officials in Kabul to maintain a consistent drawdown of U.S. troops and transition to a training mission.
The U.S. will have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by the fall, and senior military officials here are trying to maintain that number for another year. But in a speech in June, President Obama used the term "steady drawdown" when outlining the speed with which U.S. troops will come home. If there is progress toward peace, two NATO officials said it will be easier for Washington to withstand military requests to keep as many troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible.
Washington's desire to reconcile was never more apparent than in a recent interview by Vice President Joe Biden with Newsweek. The Taliban is, "per se, not our enemy. That's critical," he said. "There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests."
The goal in Afghanistan, Biden continued, was restricted to diminishing al Qaeda, strengthening the Afghan government, "and at the same time try to get the Taliban to move in the direction to see to it that they, through reconciliation, commit not to be engaged with al Qaeda or any other organization that they would harbor to do damage to us and our allies."
Biden's statement went down poorly in Afghanistan, where Taliban bombs continue to kill thousands of Afghan citizens.
But among those involved in the peace process, it was a sign that the United States leadership, after years of doubt, was fully behind reconciliation.
"We are moving in the right direction toward a commitment that the mistakes made in the past won't be repeated," said the senior Afghan official involved in the peace process.
The official cautioned that there would be severe consequences if the U.S., Pakistan, or even his own government failed to maintain a commitment to the peace process.
"If we don't seize the momentum now," the official said, "the backlash will be very bad."