The leaked reports over the past two weeks of a series of meetings between US officials and a Taliban figure close to leader Mullah Omar seemed to point to real progress toward a negotiated settlement of the war in Afghanistan.
But in fact the talks are part of a Barack Obama administration strategy aimed at putting pressure on the Taliban leadership in part by dividing it from Pakistan as well as bolstering Obama's domestic support for the war.
Senior administration officials hope to use the talks to sow suspicion between the Taliban and their main ally, thus weakening the Taliban resolve to negotiate on a peace settlement only if the United States offers a timetable for troop withdrawal.
Afghan and German officials have said that US officials met three times in Qatar and Germany in recent months with Tayyeb Agha, an aide of the top Taliban leader Mullah Omar, according to reports in the Washington Post and Der Spiegel.
Agha is about as close to Mullah Omar as any official in the Taliban. He has long been Omar's “head of office” and a “very close confident,” according to Thomas Ruttig of the.
The Hamid Karzai regime was fully briefed on those “exploratory” meetings, but Pakistani officials have been kept in the dark as part of a strategy of sowing discord between Pakistan and the Taliban leadership.
That strategy began to emerge when UK Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Mark Sedwill visited Pakistan last week.
Sedwill told journalists that the Taliban leadership was engaged in talks with “various stakeholders with full backing of the US with the sole aim of finding a solution to Afghanistan from within, without any involvement of foreign players.”
He was clearly hoping to rattle the Pakistani military leadership and civilian government, which have complained in the past that they have not been told about contacts with the Taliban. Sedwill's carefully worded statement hinted that talks with the Taliban were moving toward an accord between the Taliban and the Karzai government without Pakistan's participation, thus playing into Pakistan's worst fears.
He said various channels are now open to the Taliban, and that no single entity is fully aware of these talks. That was clearly intended to imply that the Taliban are already involved in secret talks with Karzai.
The UK envoy said he had come with this “special message” from the British government and hoped the Pakistanis “fully grasped it.”
That unusually harsh and even condescending language sought to convey the US-British intention to freeze Pakistan out of the diplomatic action, despite earlier assurances that Pakistan would be fully involved in the peace process.
That policy obviously seeks to increase the tensions between the Taliban and the Pakistani military. They share an interest in an outcome in Afghanistan that reflects greater Taliban influence over the country's politics, but Taliban leaders and commanders have long resented their dependence on Pakistan.
The Pakistani military, meanwhile, is believed to have worried that the Taliban will reach an accord with Karzai at Pakistan's expense. It is well known that the Taliban prefer to have an office outside Pakistan that could be used as a venue for peace talks, free from direct Pakistani interference.
But the reality of the US-Taliban talks does not support the line being promoted so aggressively by Washington through its British ally. Nor are the Taliban likely to cut Pakistan out of the loop on their talks with the United States and Karzai.
For one thing, the United States is still unwilling to offer the Taliban an office in Turkey or elsewhere. Instead, as Sedwill revealed in Islamabad last week, that concession, as well as the removal of Taliban leaders from the United Nations “blacklist,” will only be granted in return for “confidence-building” measures by the Taliban side.
Sedwill told journalists the US and UK would “need to see what concessions the Taliban would be willing to first cede….”
The most likely concession demanded of the Taliban would be to agree to negotiate formally with the Karzai regime. As a US official told Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, the Taliban “is going to have to talk with both the Afghans and Americans.”
The Obama administration is still demanding, moreover, that those talks must be “Afghan-led.”
But the idea that Taliban will give up what would be one of the last concessions in talks before the United States has even begun to negotiate reflects an assessment of the bargaining position of the two sides that is not shared by those outside the Obama administration.
Both the Taliban and the Pakistani military appear to believe that the Taliban has a stronger bargaining position at this point than Obama.
Last month Pakistan's foreign secretary Salman Bashir challenged the premise of the Obama administration that US military pressure is altering the balance of power in Afghanistan in Washington's favour.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have made it clear in private contacts with representatives of the Karzai regime that they won't negotiate with either the United States or Karzai without a public indication from the United States that it will negotiate the withdrawal of US and NATO troops.
A member of the executive board of Karzai's High Peace Council, Mohamad Ismail Qasem Yar, told IPS that the Taliban had insisted in contacts with Afghan officials on one precondition for peace talks. “There is one thing that they want to make clear and they want to be sure of, which is a deadline for the withdrawal,” he said.
In their public statements, however, the Taliban continue to insist that they won't negotiate as long as foreign troops occupy the country. Michael Semple, who was deputy to the European Union special representative for Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007, observes that the idea of jihad against foreign troops is important to the morale of the Taliban fighters and their supporters.
The public demand for withdrawal before negotiations “may be an untenable position,” Semple told IPS, “but the process of shifting may be painful.”
Even though Taliban officials may be distrustful of Pakistan and may now feel more vulnerable because of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces, they are not likely to be panicked into making concessions to Washington.
Although it was widely believed that Pakistan detained Mullah Baradar and other high Taliban officials, including Tayyeb Agha, in early 2010 because of the suspicion that the Taliban were talking with the Karzai regime behind their backs, the real reasons for the arrests suggest a different worry.
Baradar was picked up in a joint ISI-CIA operation, but it was later reported by US sources that neither intelligence agency had known in advance that Baradar would be at the site of the raid.
In any case, Baradar, Agha and the other key Taliban officials were later released, suggesting that the Pakistanis were primarily concerned with averting their capture and detention by the United States. Pakistani warnings to the Taliban against contacts with the Karzai regime that were not coordinated with ISI could obviously be communicated without temporary detention.
The widely-publicised US talks with the Taliban also serve a domestic political function for Obama. One US official told the Washington Post that Obama would cite the talks with the Taliban in his mid-year policy announcement as evidence that he was making good on Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's promised to produce negotiations.
Walid Fazly contributed reporting from Kabul.