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Top Afghan Official Confirms Talks With Taliban

April 6, 2011

The New York Times, 6 April 2011: A top Afghan official confirmed on Wednesday that the Afghan government had been in peace talks with the Taliban.

Mohammad Massoom Stanekzai, secretary of the High Peace Council and an adviser to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said ongoing reconciliation talks had been under way with insurgents for some time.

“We’re in touch, we talk all the time, we’ve done a lot, we’ve sent representatives to their sides and they’ve sent representatives to our side,” said Mr. Stanekzai, who advises Mr. Karzai on reconciliation issues.

Asked if these were talks about talks, Mr. Stanekzai replied, “It is a step beyond that.”

The remarks came at a news conference to announce a $50 million donation from the American government to the High Peace Council to support reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

Mr. Stanekzai’s remarks were the most public confirmation by a senior Afghan official that talks with the Taliban were under way. The United States is supporting the effort, Mr. Stanekzai said. The American ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, who was also present, concurred.

“We are all 100 percent behind reintegration and reconciliation,” Mr. Eikenberry said.

Taliban spokesmen have repeatedly maintained that the insurgents are not participating in talks with the Afghan government and that they will not do so until their precondition of a complete withdrawal of foreign forces was met. Claims to the contrary are part of American and Afghan government propaganda, they have claimed.

“For political reasons the antigovernment elements cannot confirm they are ready for talks with the Afghan government,” Mr. Stanekzai said. In keeping with Afghan government practice, he did not refer to the Taliban or related insurgents by their groups’ names, but rather with the term “antigovernment elements.”

He said much of what had been happening had necessarily been in secret. “When we do something, you won’t be able to see the results right away,” he said. “This is a process; it will take some time.”

Mr. Stanekzai and Mr. Eikenberry both stressed that reconciliation efforts were led by Afghans. “We are in the front,” Mr. Stanekzai said. “The Americans are giving us financial support; if anything beyond that support is required, then their support would be there.”

However, there have been numerous reports of recent talks being carried out between the Taliban and other interested parties, including the United Nations, Britain, Germany, Norway and the United States.

“These peace efforts by the High Peace Council are just a cover,” said Mohammed Mohakik, a council member and a prominent Hazara leader. “The real efforts are going on behind the curtain and are not transparent.”

Like many non-Pashtun politicians, Mr. Mohakik is concerned about concessions that Mr. Karzai might make to cut a deal with the Taliban. The Taliban are largely Pashtun, as is the president and a plurality of the country’s population.

It has already been reported that Western diplomats, Taliban leaders and the Afghan government have been discussing means to start serious talks, including how to guarantee the safety and safe passage of Taliban participants, and where such talks could be held.

One former Taliban cabinet member, who is now a member of the High Peace Council, Arsala Rahmani, said intermediaries had already won approval from Turkey to provide a venue.

Efforts to reach out to the Taliban have faltered badly in the past. Last year, the United States Congress earmarked $100 million for peace efforts, including reintegrating Taliban fighters, and European countries pledged an additional $150 million. A small fraction of that money has actually been spent, and relatively few real Taliban fighters have changed sides.

The $50 million donation from the United States announced Wednesday differs only in that the money is being given to the Afghan government to disburse, instead of being doled out by the American government as was done previously for such funds.

Last year, the United States helped facilitate secret talks between a Taliban military commander and Afghan officials, paying him a large amount of money and flying him to Kabul from Pakistan. It later turned out, however, that the man was an impostor.

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