U.S. Reportedly Accelerates Talks With Taliban

Reports say that the U.S. is pushing harder to establish negotiations with the biggest faction of the Taliban in hopes of moving toward a political resolution to the war in Afghanistan. Michele Norris talks with Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post about the latest talks.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The United States is reportedly accelerating direct talks with the Taliban. It's part of a broader effort to make progress in the conflict in Afghanistan before an expected troop withdrawal begins in July.

Karen DeYoung reported these developments in today's Washington Post. She joins us now with more details. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KAREN DEYOUNG (Associate Editor, The Washington Post): Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: The U.S. has tried and failed to open talks with the Taliban in the past. What's different this time? Is it all about the killing of bin Laden, or is there a broader explanation?

Ms. DEYOUNG: No, I think this started before the killing of bin Laden, although there are people in the administration and in Afghanistan who certainly think that that might contribute to these efforts and make them easier. These are talks that started several months ago with representatives that the United States has gradually come to believe are representatives of Mullah Omar, the head of the Quetta Shura part of the Afghan Taliban.

They've tried this, as you said, in the past, but there's always been a problem in determining whether the person who was representing himself as someone close to Mullah Omar, someone with influence in the Taliban really was someone of influence. You know, there was a case last fall where you had NATO flying a senior - so-called senior Taliban representative into Kabul for talks, only to find out that the guy was a fake, that he didn't represent anyone but himself.

NORRIS: Karen, help us understand what's on the table in these talks.

Ms. DEYOUNG: Well, I think one of the most interesting things and what really has led up this now, at least in the U.S. view, is an actual change in U.S. policy. Secretary of State Clinton announced in February - in a speech that not too many of us paid too much attention to because it came in the middle of the uprisings in Egypt.

She said that what the United States had always described as preconditions for talks with the Taliban - and there were three of them - end all ties with al-Qaida, renounce violence and pledge adherence to the Afghan constitution, including respect for the rights of women and other minorities. Those were no longer preconditions to talks; that those had to be the end state of the talks.

And the Americans at least believed that this persuaded the Taliban that they were a little more serious. At the same time, there's been a step up in U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. I think there's some division of opinion whether the losses that the Taliban have suffered more recently have made them more amendable to talks.

And I think that the Americans have just pushed harder. You know, President Obama, as you said, is going to announce the early withdrawal of troops starting in July and they really would like to also announce that they've made some progress with what they've always said has got to be a negotiated settlement to this war.

NORRIS: In the end, when you look at the Taliban's demands - the release of prisoners, the total pullout of all foreign troops from Afghanistan - you know, you look at that list and you wonder, where is the possibility of some kind of middle ground?

Ms. DEYOUNG: Yeah. I think that also the question is what do Afghans want. The Afghan people are very divided on this question. You've seen in the last several weeks, as there have been renewed rumors of talks, quite large demonstrations in Kabul from political opponents of President Karzai, tribal groups that do not want the predominantly Pashtun Taliban to be back at any level in Afghanistan.

So, I think that as we get further along the line, assuming we do in these talks, that the Afghan people are going to have weigh in and say what they want.

NORRIS: And as the U.S. engages in these direct talks with the Taliban, what role, if any, do other governments play in these talks? Afghanistan, Pakistan -are these countries happy about this and happy about the possibility of sitting on the sidelines while the U.S. engages in some sort of unilateral discussion with Taliban leaders?

Ms. DEYOUNG: Obviously, Pakistan plays a big role, although as the United States thinks very carefully at the moment following the bin Laden attack about what its relationship with Pakistan is going to be, I think there's been an effort to get these negotiations moving kind of alongside of the Pakistanis, not through the Pakistanis.

And according to U.S. officials, there's some reason to believe that at least the Quetta Shura Taliban in fact would prefer not to go through the Pakistanis. There are lots of other governments in the region that had to be brought into this - India, China, Russia, Iran. The United States is trying, having given lip service for a long time, to bringing these other countries into the negotiations. I believe there is a renewed effort to bring them in as these talks go further.

NORRIS: Karen DeYoung, thanks so much.

Ms. DEYOUNG: You're very welcome.

NORRIS: Karen DeYoung is the senior diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post.

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