NATO Troops Transporting Taliban For Talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai hopes to launch peace negotiations with insurgents and lay the groundwork for an end to the war. New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins has learned that top-level Taliban leaders are crossing from Pakistan for peace talks, and in some cases being secured and flown by NATO troops.

NEAL CONAN, host:

It's been known for some time that Afghan leaders have reached out to the Taliban for peace talks. President Hamid Karzai hopes to launch those negotiations with insurgents and lay the groundwork for an end to the war. What we did not know is that top level Taliban leaders are crossing from Pakistan for these talks, their security guaranteed by NATO troops. And in at least one case they have been flown aboard NATO aircraft. These leaders include men targeted for death or capture.

New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins broke that story in this morning's paper. And Dexter joins us now from the on the phone from Kabul. Nice to have you back on the program, Dexter.

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (New York Times): Hey, thank you.

CONAN: You wrote that the talks appeared to represent the most substantive effort to date to negotiate an end to this nine-year-old war. What makes you think that there's substance involved?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think the mere fact that it's actually happening is pretty remarkable. They've tried to do this kind of thing before and it hasn't work. And so, in this case, you actually have I mean, as you mentioned on the show, you actually have the Taliban leadership, which is in hiding in sanctuaries in Pakistan, they have come out, they've crossed the border, they've gone into Afghanistan, where, as you mentioned, you know, there's 150,000 NATO and American troops trying to kill them, and they got on airplanes, they got in cars, and they made the effort and they took the leap of faith to come and talk. And so it's pretty remarkable - the mere fact of it happening. But I think, you know, obviously there's a long way to go because I think these discussions are pretty preliminary, by all accounts.

CONAN: And it's interesting - the United States has agreed to go along with this. We've understood that General David Petraeus' timetable well, that he'd hope to spend the next six months to a year decimating the Taliban and al-Qaida, and then these talks might, he would think, be profitable.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's true. I think you do have this really interesting two-track approach that General Petraeus has embarked on. On one hand, there's been an extraordinary intensification of the force used against the Taliban, and that's in almost every way. I mean, there's 30,000 more troops here. They're now in the field. They've ramped up the number of air strikes. The number of Special Forces missions has gone up by five times in the past 12 months. So I think the idea is, if they don't want to come to negotiating table then we'll push them there, in as diminished a form as they can manage.

So yeah, I mean but it makes sense. I mean, I think I mean, that's how wars end. You know, people get sick of people get sick of fighting, and they get sick of fighting because it's painful and it hurts. And so whether this going to work is, of course, we just don't know. I mean the future here is just impossible to predict.

CONAN: The other point that other people are fascinated by is that there are at least three major elements to the group that we lump together as the Taliban. There's the Quetta Shura, which Mullah Omar, the former leadership in Kabul who were ousted. There's the Haqqani network in Pakistan and Waziristan. And there's the Peshawar Qura(ph), which is another group of Taliban leaders. And all three elements seem to have sent senior leaders to this - to these talks.

Mr. FILKINS: That's right. Well, not all at once. I mean, I think - to me, what's interesting here, I mean, there's been a lot of attempts to reach out to the Quetta Shura, which is Mullah Omar's group. That's the main body of the Taliban. They've got most of the fighters in Afghanistan. They're in the South, where most of the fighting is.

I think what's interesting to me is if you take the Haqqani group, that is an absolutely violent, mafia-like organization that is known to and has been proven to be sheltering al-Qaida people. I mean, if you had to put your money on any single place where Osama bin Laden is hiding, it's probably North Waziristan. That's a pretty noxious bunch of people.

It was only a few months ago that General Petraeus was pushing the Obama administration to designate them a terrorist organization. And so now -now the United States is actually presiding over a process in which these guys are being talked to.

So you can see, you know, politics makes strange bedfellows, as it's done here. No one really could have guessed that even a few months ago, but now it's happening.

CONAN: We're talking with Dexter Filkins of the New York Times about his article in this morning's papers about the suddenly more serious talks that appear to be going on outside of Kabul in Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Dexter, you pointed out war's end, when people get tired of fighting, the price is too high. General formula for stability, though, has been one side not only loses but understands that it has lost and is willing to make concessions it was not previously willing to make. If the conflict comes to an end now, are these groups going to be reconciled to renouncing violence and cutting their ties to al-Qaida?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I mean I think you went right to the heart of it. Again, you can't really tell the future here. But generally speaking, you only get at the negotiating table what you've earned on the battlefield. And at the moment, what we have on the battlefield is essentially a stalemate. And so I think the likelihood of there being a settlement at the negotiating table is pretty small right now. I think in order for that to happen, in order for the odds for it to happen to increase, there's going to have to be pretty, pretty dramatic progress on the battlefield.

And I think that is - you know, I think that's - if you had General Petraeus on this show or one of the commanders, they would tell you that. I mean, I think that the whole idea here over the next, you know, six, eight months is to wear down the Taliban as much as they can with all these extra resources which have now been committed to the fight. And as they do that, then the hope is, is that the Taliban, which - will realize that victory is no longer possible, and they'll come to the table.

CONAN: And that extra force being applied, you've written about an extraordinary tempo increase in the number of special forces, attacks that are being used, and of course the drone attacks continue across the border as well.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. And you can see that. You can really feel it here, and you can see it everywhere you go. There - you can feel and see the extra resources that are in the fight. And it's not even just on the battlefield. I mean, if you - you've got the special forces now, five times the tempo that they were doing a year ago. You've got airstrikes up 50 percent. You have, just in whole other realms you've got this embarking on negotiations. You've got this pretty intensive effort to just draw rank and file Taliban fighters out of the fight.

There are so many different pieces that are moving now that weren't moving, you know, a year ago or a year and a half ago that, you know, that you can really feel it here. You can feel the kind of aircraft carrier starting to swing around. You know, it's - again, you can't tell the future in these places. I mean, it's just - it's a fool's game to try to predict, but it's really changing on the ground.

CONAN: Does that sound like the kind of counterinsurgency protect-the-population strategy that General Petraeus was famous for authoring in Iraq and was the policy announced that - by his predecessor, General McChrystal and him?

Mr. FILKINS: I think so. I think so. It's - they haven't abandoned that, protecting the population. I mean, that's basically what the extra troops are for. But if you just take, say, the - if you just take southern Afghanistan, they've got to get in there, and they've got to get into these places. And in some of these places where they are going now - I mean, if you start with Marja in February and now in Zhari, in Panjwai, Arghandab - in some of these places, they haven't been in years, literally, and they've got to fight their way back in.

So I don't find it personally that remarkable that there's been a big spike in violence now, because that's what's happening in these places. I think the real test is going to be in about six months' time, say in the spring, when you may begin to see some of the violence levels come down. If they do, that'll be a great sign. If they don't, then, you know, then I think then I think it's maybe back to the drawing board.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, thanks very much for your time. We know you stayed up late for this. We appreciate it.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, New York Times foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. We've posted a link to today's front page article at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us by phone from Kabul.

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