Report: Afghanistan Holding Peace Talks With Taliban

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks to Washington Post correspondent Karen DeYoung about secret high-level talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Well even if that war strategy is not expected to change, there is some talk of peace. Today, the White House said it supports efforts by the Afghan government to open peace talks with the Taliban. But it says the U.S. won't be taking part in any such talks.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

The subject came up because of a story in today's Washington Post reporting that the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have in fact begun secret high level talks, talks aimed at negotiating an end to the war.

Karen DeYoung is one of the reporters on that story. She's The Post's senior diplomatic correspondent. And, Karen, what exactly are your sources telling you is underway?

KAREN D: I think these talks are preliminary at this point. You know, there was a series of talks that ended last year, where representatives of President Karzai were speaking with the Taliban. They were never quite sure if the Taliban they were talking to had a mandate from Mullah Omar and the Qwed Ashura, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban.

Now they say that they are sure. They've got different Taliban representatives. They are sure that they have a mandate from the top and they've started informally to have talks. The Taliban put out a statement today saying that their demand is still the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

And, of course, the demands on the government side and from the United States is that the Taliban must sever all connections with al-Qaida, say that it respects the Afghan constitution and the Afghan government and essentially stop fighting. I think those are the public positions. I think in private, they're talking about all manner of things.

LOUISE KELLY: So the key distinction, as you say, there have been talks before, but this time it appears, from your reporting, that this is the senior leadership, the group based now at Quetta, Pakistan, that may actually have authorized these talks, which we haven't seen before.

YOUNG: Yes, I believe that that is true. I think there's also been a change on the part of the Obama administration. Things have gone somewhat slower than the administration anticipated on the ground, while the July deadline to begin withdrawals next year is looming. And I think that they are pretty eager for real talks to begin.

LOUISE KELLY: The U.S. does not see a role for itself in these talks. Why not?

YOUNG: Well, I think they think that would be the kiss of death. That the worst thing from the Taliban point of view would be seen to be talking to the Americans. And since one of the public demands is still that there can be no firm negotiations until all foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban certainly does not want to be seen negotiating that issue with the Americans.

At the same time, one of the U.S. goals is to build up the Afghan government, to build up Afghan sovereignty. And that also would be undercut if the Americans were seen to be involved in the talks.

And I think, finally, you know, the Americans have come to realize that they know less about Afghanistan and Afghans than they perhaps earlier thought they did. And that they've got to let the Afghans do this themselves.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, you've covered this story for many years. What are the prospects for these talks actually producing some sort of meaningful agreement?

YOUNG: Most people believe that negotiations are the only way this is going to end. You know, counterinsurgency, if you look at the doctrine, it actually doesn't have an endpoint. Theoretically, it kind of go on forever, and that somewhere, sometime, even just out of mutual exhaustion, there has to be an end. And I think that the administration feels like they've set this July date as a way to focus everybody's attention on how to end this exhausting situation.

LOUISE KELLY: All right, thanks very much.

YOUNG: You're welcome.

LOUISE KELLY: That's Karen DeYoung. She's senior diplomatic correspondent at the Washington Post. And we were talking with her about her story in today's paper, reporting that President Karzai's government and Taliban representatives have begun secret talks aimed at ending the war.

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