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Over the past few weeks, there have been a flurry of revelations about contacts between the Taliban and Afghanistan's government - contacts aimed at creating peace talks. U.S. and Afghan officials agree that only a political accord can bring the war to an end. But as with many things in Afghanistan, the road to a possible peace process is both complicated and not always as it seems. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Kabul.
JACKIE NORTHAM: There have been many claims, recently, that substantial talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are just around the corner, or are already underway. Some of those claims have come from the Afghan president himself, Hamid Karzai.
HAMID KARZAI: (Foreign language spoken)
NORTHAM: During a televised speech earlier this week, Karzai said Afghanistan and the international community are marching towards reconciliation and that there are signs the Taliban is on board. Karzai also told CNN that he has already begun holding secret talks with Taliban leaders. Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar quickly sought to clarify Karzai's remarks.
WAHEED OMAR: What he meant was, mainly more in terms of contacts and people calling each other and saying we're ready for talks. If you say talks in the form of negotiations whereby you sit behind table and discuss each other's conditions and discuss as to how this is going to be taken forward, no. In that form we have not had comprehensive talks.
NORTHAM: The senior Taliban leadership, based in neighboring Pakistan, has denied there have been any meetings with the Karzai government. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef is a former member of the Taliban, and was its ambassador to Pakistan. Tall, intense, wearing a black turban, Zaeef says the Taliban considers the Karzai government illegitimate and a puppet of the United States, and will not enter into negotiations with him.
MULLAH ABDUL SALAM ZAEEF: Why the Taliban should talk with Karzai? Who is Karzai?
NORTHAM: Zaeef says there are only two players who should be at the negotiating table - the United States and the Taliban. But Zaeef claims America is not ready. It's still trying to win militarily. He says the U.S. and the Afghan government are whipping up stories about peace negotiations in order to show progress in America's new strategy for Afghanistan and to sow confusion among the Taliban.
ABDUL SALAM ZAEEF: They want to increase some kind of worries in the Taliban - that there is something going on.
NORTHAM: Professor Muhammed Akrem Mirhazar holds a thick blue binder full of files. Each one contains a postage stamp picture of a Taliban militant who has renounced violence, and a letter from the government promising to protect the former insurgent.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS RUFFLING)
MUHAMMED AKREM MIRHAZAR: (Through translator) So these are all letters actually. They are similar to each other. Only the names and the pictures are different.
NORTHAM: Mirhazar is the director of Afghanistan's Peace and Reconciliation Commission, an organization formed more than five years ago to try to reintegrate Taliban members. Mirhazar says initially 100 to 150 men would come in each week to surrender. He says that number has tailed off dramatically because Afghan provincial authorities have reneged on security guarantees.
AKREM MIRHAZAR: (Through translator) These people have been arrested by the government and their property was seized by some of the local warlords and powerful people. And the government did not support them.
NORTHAM: Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAUFMAN: In a crowded hall in the center of Kabul, members of a new, higher level peace council gather. President Karzai recently set up the council as a way to guide any formal talks with the Taliban and other insurgents. Abdul Hakim Moojahid, a council member, says the time is ripe for negotiations.
ABDUL HAKIM MOOJAHID: This is the right time that all of the sides to show their flexibility and disregard and take in consideration the high national interest of the people of Afghanistan.
NORTHAM: Jackie Northam NPR News Kabul
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