Karzai Says Afghanistan In Talks With Taliban

The Taliban has strongly denied it has begun peace talks with the Afghan government and the US. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said talks among the Taliban, US and Afghan officials have already begun in the Gulf state of Qatar, but it hasn't been confirmed. Taliban media spokesmen have long maintained there will be no peace talks with what they call the "puppet" government in Kabul. Karzai is holding talks Thursday in Islamabad with leaders of Pakistan and Iran, discussing prospects for negotiations with the Taliban. NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, talks with Robert Siegel about the news.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with mixed messages out of Afghanistan. Today, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, President Hamid Karzai said that his government, along with the U.S. government, have had contacts with the Taliban. And while that would imply negotiations, Karzai's claim brought a quick denial from a Taliban spokesman. He issued a written statement saying the insurgents have had no contacts with what they call the puppet government in Kabul.

Well, NPR's Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence joins us now. Quil, President Karzai said he's in contact with the Taliban. The Taliban says he has not. Who's right?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The Taliban spokesman have rebuked President Karzai in several recent occasions when he made assertions that Kabul was making some sort of progress with peace talks. So the president's office seemed to be prepared for that again this time, and they preemptively dismissed comments from the Taliban's spokesman. Karzai told The Wall Street Journal that his government is in contact with the highest levels of the Taliban and that some spokesmen might deny that.

Some in Kabul have suggested that this shows a split within the Taliban or, perhaps, the Taliban are afraid that their fighters will lose their morale if they hear that talks are under way. A U.S. official told us that any discussion is in the exploratory stages and corroborated President Karzai's statement that there has been at least one contact in a third country between the U.S., Afghanistan and the Taliban.

SIEGEL: One contact in a third country. Last month, we heard the announcement that the Taliban were opening an office, perhaps, for talks in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. Is that what we suspect the third country might be?

LAWRENCE: The language is all very vague, I would say, or what diplomats would call nuanced. Qatar has agreed to host Taliban political office, and there have been reports that preliminary contact between Americans and the Taliban have been getting that moving.

Next is what negotiators call the confidence building stage where - what has been mentioned is that there might be a possible prisoner swap with Taliban officials who are detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be released into Qatari custody. And perhaps in turn, the Taliban would release U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl who's been held by the Taliban since 2009. Any of these measures could be a long way off. And the White House has said that they would seek congressional approval before they release anyone from Guantanamo. And there's speculation that, especially in an election year, President Obama might be very careful about this.

SIEGEL: Now, Quil, President Karzai is in Pakistan today, where he met in Islamabad with the Pakistani prime minister. Is that related to the Afghan peace process at all?

LAWRENCE: The president's office says that it is, and no one is under any illusion that peace can be made without Pakistan, which is widely believed to be materially supporting the Taliban. President Karzai says he's there to shore up support from Pakistan. Pakistani officials have said they are in favor of an Afghan-led peace process. What they'll do to facilitate that remains to be seen. But even the prospect of talks is a product of a year's worth of secret negotiations. And historically, these talks take a long time. If there are meaningful contacts, even talks about talks between the Taliban and Karzai and the Americans, that is a big step forward. But to take a step back, there are a lot of questions here in Afghanistan about the Taliban's sincerity and how many Afghans would accept the Taliban's terms for peace.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence, speaking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan. Quil, thanks a lot.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Robert.

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