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More high-level Taliban interested in talks with NATO

October 24, 2010

US Army soldiers arrive at a military camp after patrolling in Siah Choy village in Zari district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan. High-level Taliban leaders are showing interest in talks with the US-backed government in Kabul in increasing numbers, as pressure mounts from an intensifying NATO military campaign, a special US envoy said Sunday.… WASHINGTON (AFP) – High-level Taliban leaders are showing interest in talks with the US-backed government in Kabul in increasing numbers, as pressure mounts from an intensifying NATO military campaign, a special US envoy said Sunday.

But Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, cautioned that the feelers so far add up to "contacts and discussions" rather than peace negotiations to end a war now in its tenth year.

"What we've got here is an increasing number of Taliban at high levels saying, 'Hey, we want to talk,'" he said. "We think this is a result in large part of the growing pressure they're under from General (David) Petraeus and the ISAF command."

Holbrooke's comments in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria were the latest sign that Washington is encouraging Afghan President Hamid Karzai's peace overtures toward the Taliban as it looks to begin drawing down a US surge force next year.

Karzai has set up a High Council for Peace to pursue a dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

The New York Times reported last week that Taliban leaders were being offered safe passage by NATO troops from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and in one case were flown to Kabul in a NATO aircraft.

Some commentators have seen the turn as part of a "fight and talk" strategy by Petraeus, the ISAF commander, who has escalated drone attacks in Taliban sanctuaries while using his surge forces to weaken insurgent strongholds in the south.

Holbrooke, a veteran of war-ending peace negotiations in other conflicts, cautioned not to expect the war in Afghanistan to be settled by formal peace negotiations as they were in Vietnam or Bosnia.

"In this particular case, unlike the two issues I mentioned a moment ago, there is no clear single address that you go to.

"There's no Ho Chi Minh. There's no Slobodan Milosevic. There's no Palestinian Authority. There is a widely dispersed group of people that we roughly call the enemy," he said.

The list of groups includes the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Pakistani Taliban, the Al-Haqqani network, Hesb-e-Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al-Qaeda.

The only group Holbrooke specifically ruled out talks with was Al-Qaeda.

"So the idea of peace talks, to use your phrase, or negotiations, to use another phrase, doesn't really add up to the way this thing is going to evolve," Holbrooke said.

But he said the war could not be won militarily and "some kind of political element to this is essential, and we are looking at every aspect of this."

Holbrooke was guarded about the role in talks of Pakistan, which is widely reported to maintain links to Taliban groups as a way to preserve its influence in Afghanistan after NATO forces depart.

Pakistan has resisted US pressure to move against militants in North Waziristan, a tribal area on its northwestern border with Afghanistan that some of the most effective militant groups have used as a sanctuary.

Beyond the threat it poses to US and NATO operations in Afghanistan, the sanctuary is also seen as a base to plot and train for attacks against the West by groups like Al-Qaeda.

"Let me just say that we have discussed this with the Pakistanis. Right now they have 70,000 of their troops working on flood relief in Pakistan," Holbrooke said.

"I'm not here to defend the Pakistani military or to attack them. They know our views on the importance of this area you're talking about."

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