U.N. Tries To Clear The Way For Afghan Settlement

Rumors about peace talks between the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban have been simmering even as the summer fighting season heats up. While the substance of any talks remain unconfirmed, the United Nations may take action this month to clear away obstacles to a political settlement. U.N. officials say they want to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity for a breakthrough even in the midst of heavy fighting.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There is no peace in Afghanistan, but there is at least some talk of it. The United Nations is watching for a possible opportunity to reconcile the warring parties as the U.S. considers talks with the Taliban. All this talk about talking peace comes in the midst of the fighting season, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.

QUIL LAWRENCE: As the full heat of summer bears down on Afghanistan, the fighting season is coming to a boil, with combat and civilian casualties reaching some of the highest levels in the nine year old conflict. That may not seem like the most auspicious moment for peace talks, but hints of direct contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban continue to pop up in the international media and the Afghan press.

Mr. STAFFAN DI MISTURA (U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan): Those contacts are still informal, lets be frank, and they are still about talks about talks. But they are very important.

LAWRENCE: Staffan di Mistura is the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan he previously held the same job in Iraq. Di Mistura says he believes conditions may be ripening after the death of Osama bin Laden, and indications by the Obama administration that a negotiated settlement is now the goal.

Mr. MISTURA: You will not be able to forecast it and plan it on the table. You will suddenly have a - what we call a hot negotiation environment - in other words, both sides hit each other, while, in fact, sending feelers; and indicating either through the intermediary of the Afghan government or with the assistance of the U.N., to actually start talking. That moment, I cant forecast it, but its going to happen.

LAWRENCE: Theres no clear evidence the Taliban is ready to come to the table, and many in Afghan society say they wont accept talks that might see a return of the Talibans extremist policies. But before a peace process could even begin, there are a few formalities to contend with. After 9/11, the U.N. Security Council put the Taliban and al-Qaida under sanctions as one regime.

German Ambassador to the U.N. Peter Wittig, is chair of the sanctions committee on Taliban and al-Qaida. He says some on the Security Council believe the two should be separated.

Mr. PETER WITTIG (German Ambassador to the U.N.): They point out that the Taliban have a more national agenda, focusing on Afghanistan, while the al Qaida terrorist network acting on global scale. And therefore, the U.N. should take into account that reality.

LAWRENCE: At the same time, the U.N. will also be asked, by the Afghan government, to remove 50 Afghan individuals from a blacklist that carries a travel ban and an asset freeze. These formalities are important for several reasons - many of the names on the U.N.s blacklist are former Taliban who are now living openly in Kabul some of them as members of President Hamid Karzais High Commission for Peace. Some of the people on the list are deceased, others say they are wrongly accused.

Even with the political will, the red tape has been formidable. If the U.N. does manage to take some names off the list and formally separate the Taliban from al Qaida, it may send a much needed signal of good will says Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan.

Mr. MULLAH ABDUL SALAM ZAEEF (Former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan): For the Taliban, which is on the other side, I think its good starting. This is important to create situation for them - to trust and to prepare situation for dialogue.

LAWRENCE: But Zaeef cautions that the Taliban militants fighting in the countryside dont care about any U.N. action, and theyre still committed to driving the Americans out of Afghanistan. Zaeef says hes in favor of peace talks, but what hes seen so far seems more like politicians trying to make the world believe the Taliban are coming to the table. He says his sources wont confirm that any significant meetings have taken place between the Americans and the Taliban.

Mr. ZAEEF: Its rumor, its rumor. Im not believing its reality.

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