U.S. Tries To Lay Groundwork For Afghan Peace Talks

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is in Pakistan and Afghanistan this week for talks with military officials there. The visit comes as U.S. officials try to lay the groundwork for peace talks aimed at bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan.

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The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is traveling in Afghanistan and Pakistan this week. Admiral Mike Mullen's visit comes at a critical time. In Afghanistan, U.S. officials are trying to lay the groundwork for talks with the Taliban to end the war. On the other side of the border, the Americans are running damage control as they try to mend relations with Pakistan.

NPR's Rachel Martin has more.

RACHEL MARTIN: Admiral Mike Mullen said, this week, what many U.S. officials have been repeating - to themselves as much as to the public - that the relationship with Pakistan is too important to fail. That warning comes a week after the head of Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, met with the CIA Director Leon Panetta in Washington to talk about growing concerns over the U.S. drone strikes, and the growing presence of CIA operatives.

Dr. JOHN NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): Pakistan is a classic friend and enemy. Its actions will ultimately - are ultimately likely to prove decisive inside Afghanistan.

MARTIN: John Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, and he co-wrote the Army's counterinsurgency manual. He and other military experts say the war in Afghanistan cannot be won as long as insurgents have safe havens across the border in Pakistan. So while U.S. military operations ramp up for the spring fighting season, U.S. officials are also trying to lay the groundwork for some kind of peace talks.

Mr. FRANCIS VENDRELL (Special Representative, E.U. to Afghanistan): We dont know, at this point, yet, whether the Taliban, for example, are willing to talk.

MARTIN: Francis Vendrell was the E.U.'s special representative to Afghanistan from 2000-2008.

Mr. VENDRELL: They, at times, give private signals that they seem to be willing. But we dont really know.

MARTIN: Vendrell and a group of Western diplomats have written a report describing how the U.S. and its allies should go about brokering a negotiated peace in Afghanistan. He told an audience in Washington yesterday that there are several groups that are leery of a deal like that; regular Afghans afraid of bargaining with the Taliban, neighboring countries that may prefer the status quo.

Mr. VENDRELL: And then there may be other countries who may be feeling that all they have to do is wait the Americans and the West to leave Afghanistan to then step in.

MARTIN: Which is exactly how some U.S. officials describe Pakistan: Waiting for the Americans to leave so they can fill the power vacuum.

Admiral Mullen acknowledged, this week, that Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, has ties with insurgents fighting U.S. forces across the border.

Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation. He says Pakistan is also controlling elements of the Taliban on its side of the border.

Mr. STEVE COLL (President, New America Foundation): Theres 10 years, since 2001, of Pakistani coercion.

MARTIN: Coll says these Taliban get protection, but at a price.

Mr. COLL: That has clearly animated sections of the older generation that is stuck in Pakistan, dependent on ISI for passports, dependent on Pakistani tolerance for the license to run a tea stall around the corner, to rent a home. And everybody is subjected to Pakistani permissions.

MARTIN: And on the Afghan side of the border, U.S. intelligence reports say the connections between the ISI and the Taliban are becoming clearer. The ISI is believed to provide security for Taliban meetings, and former ISI operatives have been known to train Taliban fighters.

U.S. officials are hoping to create some neutral space for the Taliban to engage in talks, without Pakistan looking over its shoulder. One idea is to set up a Taliban political office in another country. Maybe Turkey or a Gulf state, close enough to give the Pakistanis a seat at the table without letting them dominate the conversation, if that conversation ever happens.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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