No Taliban peace talks under way: Cunningham

January 19, 2013 - 5:22:16 am

KABUL: There are no significant peace talks under way with the Taliban, the US ambassador to Afghanistan said, despite years of Western and Kabul’s  efforts to broker a political end to the decade-long war and some recent signs of progress.

James Cunningham described reconciliation as “a process that hasn’t even really begun”, although he added that one of Washington’s goals was ensuring “at least the beginning of a serious process”.

He hinted at concerns over the unconditional release of some Taliban prisoners in Pakistan, at the request of Kabul, and seen as a goodwill gesture to help ease the way for negotiations.

“To this point they’ve had a pretty hands-off kind of approach to the people that they have released,” Cunningham said when asked if he was working with Islamabad to ensure the released men did not rejoin the insurgency. “We would have preferred to have greater visibility into that. Still, it’s positive that they were released, I think, from the Afghan point of view.”

Secret discussions involving US, Afghan, Pakistani and Taliban officials have been under way for months, focused around confidence-building measures, including the establishment of a political office for the Taliban outside the immediate region and the release of Taliban prisoners.

Earlier this month the insurgent group said they were prepared to open an office in Qatar for negotiations “with the international community”, and since last November Pakistan has  released three batches of Taliban prisoners. The moves were taken as signs of progress towards getting talks under way after years of false starts, missteps and outright disasters.

Among the most serious pitfalls were Nato’s 2010 discussions with a grocer from the Pakistani city of Quetta, who posed as a senior Taliban official ready to broker talks. He was flown to Kabul for meetings and pocketed thousands of dollars in cash incentives.

In 2011, a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace envoy killed the Afghan government’s top peace negotiator, the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, by hiding explosives in his turban, and then last December an attacker with a bomb concealed in his underwear, also posing as a broker for peace talks, nearly killed the spy chief.

One advantage of having a Taliban office is that it should reduce the risk of impostors presenting themselves as Taliban negotiators. But there are question marks over what incentives the insurgent group has to talk, as Western troops are heading home, and Afghan security forces are short on key capacities, from bomb disposal to intelligence and air power.

Afghanistan’s political landscape may also be dramatically different in two years, with a new president set to be elected next year — incumbent Hamid Karzai cannot stand for re-election — and most Western troops gone by the start of 2015.

Cunningham, speaking at a news conference to discuss Karzai’s recent visit to Washington to meet his US counterpart, Barack Obama, said the US hoped to start substantial talks soon.

He rejected a claim by Karzai that the US had promised drones, saying pilotless surveillance aircraft came up in discussion on equipping Afghan forces, but no decision had been made. If drones were provided, they would be unarmed, he added.

In Abu Dhabi, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Jalil Jilani, told a news conference that his country plans to release all Afghan Taliban prisoners, including the group’s former second-in-command, the clearest signal yet that it backs reconciliation efforts. 

“The remaining detainees, we are coordinating, and will be released subsequently,” he added.

Asked if the former Taliban No. 2 Mullah Baradar would be released, he said: “The aim is to release all,” without elaborating.