US sees new interest from Taliban in peace talks

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is moving ahead with plans for negotiating with the Taliban, confident talks offer the best chance to end the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan. But the military worries things are moving too fast, and intelligence agencies offered a gloomy prognosis in their latest Afghanistan report.

Several current and former U.S. officials said the most substantive give-and-take to date between U.S. and Taliban negotiators could happen in the next week, with the goal of establishing what the U.S. calls confidence-building measures — specific steps the U.S. and the insurgents agree to take ahead of formal talks. Those talks, if they ever take place, would include the United States, the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, a senior U.S. official said.

Like others interviewed, the official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomacy. Elements of the U.S. outreach to the Taliban are also classified.

The diplomatic, military and intelligence branches of the U.S. government differ over the value of talks with the Taliban or whether now is the right time to so publicly shift focus away from the ongoing military campaign that primarily targets Taliban insurgents. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and some uniformed military leaders have recently sounded some of the strongest notes of caution, especially on when to grant Taliban requests for the transfer of several of its prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military and other U.S. officials said.

The latest Afghan National Intelligence Estimate warns that the Taliban will grow stronger, using the talks to gain credibility and run out the clock until U.S. troops depart Afghanistan, while continuing to fight for more territory, say U.S. officials who have read the classified document. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the roughly 100-page review, an amalgam of intelligence community’s predictions of possible scenarios for the Afghan war through the planned end to U.S. combat in 2014.

It says the Afghan government has largely failed to prove itself to its people and will likely continue to weaken and find influence only in the cities. It predicts that the Taliban and warlords will largely control the countryside.

Meanwhile, Karzai is still uneasy with the pace and direction of talks. He resents the selection of Qatar as the site of a Taliban political office, although he has reluctantly agreed to that U.S.-backed plan. And he worries that the United States will strike a deal with the Taliban and force that deal on his government, two Afghan officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions. Karzai wanted the office located in Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Afghanistan.

U.S. officials close to the negotiations say that despite these warnings the Taliban high command is more ready for talks than in the past, at least with the United States if not the elected Afghan government it opposes.

One sign was the surprising public endorsement by the Taliban of the plan to open a negotiating office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. But U.S. officials also cite more subtle indications of a shift toward peace negotiations, including the recent participation in preliminary talks of more senior and influential Taliban representatives.

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