WASHINGTON: With America expected to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July, Washington has stepped up the pace of talks with Taliban leaders. During a visit to Islamabad last month, Marc Grossman, Washington’s special envoy to the region, appealed for help in contacting the reclusive Taliban leader, according to Imtiaz Gul, the head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
“He said we are looking for people or groups that can demonstrate their access to Mullah Omar,” Mr Gul said. In February, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, signaled a sea change in policy when she compared talking with the Taliban to President Ronald Reagan’s decision to “sit down with the Soviets”. During a farewell trip to the region last week, Robert Gates, the outgoing U.S. defence secretary, predicted that talks would start “by the end of the year”.
Mr Grossman, the replacement for special envoy Richard Holbrooke, has been nicknamed “Mr Reconciliation” and has been told to focus on tying up an agreement that will speed up the return of American troops.
American officials had already contacted Tayyab Aga, Mullah Omar’s personal secretary, who was the last public voice of the Taliban in 2001. Analysts believe that President Barack Obama, with Osama bin Laden dead and an economic crisis at home, could announce a larger than expected initial withdrawal this year – at least 10,000 troops – although no announcement has yet been made.
One senior defence official said: “The president has said he wants the withdrawal to start in July and to be meaningful. Those are the discussions that have to happen.” Mr Gul said that time was running out to strike a political deal between Afghanistan’s warring factions.
“They [the Americans] are desperate. The timeline has already been announced so they are operating by the idiom ‘the sooner the better’,” he said. Last year a shopkeeper posed as Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, a former Taliban minister, and twice met Western officials before they realized they had been tricked – and fleeced for thousands of dollars.
This year insurgents have inflicted a heavy toll on international forces and many within the Taliban suspect that negotiations would undermine the movement’s credibility and suggest it was losing the war.
“The Taliban would need to be convinced that the U.S. is serious in [looking for an] acceptable solution rather than ‘divide and rule’ and would need assurance that Pakistan will not punish them for the effort,” one analyst close to the U.S. State Department said. “What both Hillary and Obama are saying is that they are ready for the process.” -Online