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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We're going to Afghanistan now, for an update on efforts to talk peace with the Taliban. The surprise announcement last month that the U.S. and the Taliban could soon begin talks in the Gulf state of Qatar may have increased the chances of a settlement in Afghanistan.

But Afghans are equally hopeful and suspicious of the news, especially after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced recently that American troops might end combat operations a year early.NPR's Quil Lawrence reports that some Afghans are now beginning to wonder: Are talks with the Taliban about stabilizing Afghanistan, or about helping the Americans leave?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Last month, a year-long discussion between the Taliban, the Americans, Qatar and Germany resulted in a plan to open a Taliban office in Doha, the capital of Qatar. What seemed like a breakthrough was not greeted warmly by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Afghan officials say they were deliberately bypassed in a concession to the Taliban, which has always refused to negotiate with what it labels the puppet Karzai government.

This week, President Karzai announced he had his own initiative, and would be meeting Taliban leaders in Saudi Arabia. In another snub, the Taliban denied Karzai's claim today in a phone interview.

QARI YUSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Reports that talks will start in Saudi Arabia are completely false, said Qari Yusef, one of the names used by regular Taliban spokesmen.

YUSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Yusef said the Taliban is in the process of reaching an understanding with the international community through confidence-building measures that haven't taken place yet. He was referring to a possible exchange of prisoners, where Taliban fighters held in Guantanamo Bay would be released into Qatari custody. There is speculation the Taliban, in turn, would set free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held since June of 2009.

The White House says releasing prisoners from Guantanamo would likely require congressional approval. It's also pretty clear that the process needs some sort of approval from neighboring Pakistan, which is believed to control the movement of most Taliban leaders.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar made a rare visit to Kabul this week, and spoke to reporters at a news conference.

HINA RABBANI KHAR: Pakistan would stand behind any initiative, any initiative whatsoever that Afghanistan would take. So our only prerequisites to be supportive of any initiative is that it should be Afghan-led, it should be Afghan-owned, it should be Afghan-driven, it should be Afghan-backed.

LAWRENCE: Khar denied longstanding charges that the Pakistani Intelligence Service is funding and supporting the Taliban. And while Pakistan is widely blamed here in Kabul for keeping the insurgency going, some Afghans agreed with Khar's point that the Afghan government needs to be in the lead of any peace talks.

Sami Sadat, a former official in the Afghan Interior Ministry, says so far, the process has not only left out President Karzai, it's ignored the Afghan public.

SAMI SADAT: It's a political process. Unfortunately, it doesn't have its basis in the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. A majority of the Afghan feel that it's a kind of a deal for the Americans to find their way out of Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: He says a peace deal must not allow the Taliban to threaten the gains Afghans have made in the past decade. Sadat's fear rose this week when American Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta remarked that the U.S. might transition from a combat role in Afghanistan by the middle of next year - a year sooner than previously expected.

Panetta later tried to clarify his remarks, but the Obama administration has yet to explain how quickly U.S. troops will draw down from Afghanistan, and how many soldiers might stay on past 2014 as part of a strategic agreement with Kabul.

The uncertainty leaves Afghans hoping that some sort of peace plan can work out - and soon, says Sadat, because if there's no peace deal by the time the American troops go, he says, the Afghans will be left once again at the mercy of the Taliban.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

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