Time to Talk to the Taliban?

Karzai to discuss issue in Washington ahead of Kabul peace jirga.

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2010 -- When Afghan President Hamid Karzai sits down with President Obama at the White House this week, the two leaders will discuss the timing and the conditions for negotiating with the Taliban.

"Certainly the topic of reintegration, reconciliation, is one that will be high on this week's agenda," Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said. "I think there's a clarity right now between our two governments about what the common principle should be, as Afghanistan moves forward with reconciliation."

The U.S., officially at least, is willing to allow negotiations with the Taliban.

"I think the Afghanistan government and the Afghan people are looking for reconciliation and reintegration with those anti-government forces. I think the U.S. government is supporting that," retired British Lt. General Graeme Lamb, who was brought on by International Security Assistance Force as a special adviser on the issue, told ABC News recently.

The Americans have expressed doubts in the past about when to begin peace talks with the Taliban.

Just a little over a month ago, Defense Secretary Gates told Congress that he thought it was too soon to talk to the leaders of the Taliban.

"It's probably early yet for the more senior levels, that the shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders that they are in fact going to lose. And it's when they begin to have doubts about whether they can be successful that they may be willing to make a deal. And I don't think we're there yet," Gates said during a House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on March 25.

U.S. officials hope its next major military campaign in Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, will decisively turn the momentum against the Taliban. In addition, President Obama's 30,000 additional U.S. troops surge will not be fully implemented until early fall.

Karzai has long been eager to reconcile with the Taliban. He had scheduled a peace jirga, or a traditional Afghan consultative assembly, for early May when he and Education Minister Faruk Wardak hoped to invite around 1,500 influential Afghans to discuss the political future of Afghanistan, as well as how to strike a peace deal with the Taliban.

Lamb said that he would assume there would be at the jirga "people there that represent elements of the insurgency."

The jirga was rescheduled at the last minute until after Karzai's visit to Washington this week.

U.S. officials have only recently begun expressing couched support for the national peace jirga. U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David Petraeus said April 13 that the jirga was "very, very important" because it will "produce the kind of national consensus that is essential to empowering the Afghan government, indeed, to carry out meaningful reintegration of lower and mid-level Taliban leaders, over time."

Petreaus' statement did not mention top level members of the Taliban, which would be essential in any peace talks.

'Time Is About Right' for Talks with the Taliban, ISAF Adviser Says

The peace overtures have been divided into reconciliation and reintegration.

The U.S.-led international community has been engaged in reintegration, or bringing mid- to low-level members of the Taliban and the insurgency into Afghan society as long as they renounce violence and al-Qaeda, pledge adherence to the national constitution and agree to political participation.

This effort is targeted towards Afghans who are cooperating with the Taliban out of fear, have a grudge against the Afghan government or the international forces backing the Karzai regime, or the so-called "paycheck Taliban," those who fight for money.

The international community has been less publicly involved in reconciliation, which involves the Afghan government making peace with senior leaders of the Taliban and other insurgent groups who have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., said recently he believes this group only consists of 5 to 10 percent of all Afghan insurgents.

Lamb, who worked in Iraq on reintegration and reconciliation of insurgents under U.S. General James Mattis, said the two issues are "inextricably linked."

"Reintegration is not a stand alone activity. It's one, in my view, that is inextricably tied to reconciliation. For one without the other fails and both of which are an integral part of the wider counterinsurgency campaigns," Lamb said at a Marine Corps University event in April.

When asked if there was more emphasis being placed on reconciliation and reintegration more recently than before, Lamb said he believes both the U.S.and its Afghan allies are ready to negotiate.

"In my view, yes the time is about right. We started the dialogue, saw what the opportunities were. I believe those opportunities are real, very much then fits in with what President Karzai and many Afghans have been saying for some time, which is, 'We want to do this.' My view is we now have a convergence of interest," Lamb said.

Jawad also sees a change in the U.S. stance.

"There initially was a lot of reintegration talk by our international partner, more reconciliation talk by our government, but now they came together somehow and let's do both of them parallel," Jawad said recently.

Whatever is discussed at the jirga, reintegration or reconciliation, the U.S. and coalition members are funding it.

Upwards of $100 million in Commander Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds from the FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act will go to supporting Afghan reintegration, said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen at the March 25 House appropriations hearing. ISAF coalition members have also established the international Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund in support of that aim.

State Department Facebook Page Broaches Talking to Taliban

On May 5, the U.S. Kabul Embassy Facebook page posted the questions: "What is your opinion about talking to the Taliban?" and "Does talking to the Taliban or other extremist groups lead to peace?"

One Afghan Facebook member responded: "It is believed that they are going for the peace deal to let foreign forces leave Afghanistan, and then get some positions in government, then they can start fight again and collapse the government after forces leave. It is a plan made by Pakistan. Honesty of Taliban/Pakistan is doubted."

Another Afghan wrote: "It [is] worth trying. I believe Afghans are fed [up] of War and would like to have peace and stability in the country. So, if it even seems impossible but we have to try it."