KABUL: The Taliban have dismissed reports they are preparing to talk peace with the Afghan government, and a leaked NATO report has shown captured insurgents full of confidence they will seize power after international troops leave.
While both developments Wednesday were setbacks to President Hamid Karzai's quest to broker peace with the Taliban, his government got a big boost from Pakistan's top diplomat who declared her nation's support for an Afghan-led reconciliation process.
Still, steps toward finding a political resolution to the 10-year-old war continue to be bogged down in discussions among the U.S. and its partners over venues, agendas and conflicting interests.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said she was visiting Kabul to deliver the strong message that Pakistan would stand behind any peace initiative that was widely supported by all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
"Our only prerequisite to be supportive of an initiative is that it should be Afghan-led," she said. "It should be Afghan-owned. It should be Afghan-driven and Afghan-backed."
She said the Afghans should determine the way forward and then nations in the region and the greater international community should back the plan.
"This is the way the direction should be seen, rather than the other way around where others determine the direction, and the Afghans, we feel, are sometimes left to follow," she said.
While she didn't mention the United States, Afghan officials have complained privately that the peace effort has so far been dominated by American efforts and U.S. talks with Taliban representatives. Rumors have swirled for days that Karzai's government was seeking direct talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia — a move seen as Karzai's attempt to take charge of the peace effort.
A statement Wednesday from Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid rejected those reports as "baseless."
The Taliban calls the Afghan government a puppet regime. The insurgency, however, has agreed to set up a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar and has acknowledged having preliminary discussions with the U.S.
"Before the negotiation phase, there should be trust-building between the sides, which has not started yet," Mujahid said.
U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged Tuesday that to build trust with the Taliban, the United States may release several Afghan Taliban prisoners from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. No decision has been made.
Karzai was angry that Qatar had agreed to host a Taliban political office without fully consulting his government, according to a senior Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. Karzai prefers Saudi Arabia or Turkey, where he believes he would have the upper hand in guiding the talks, the official said. The Afghan government fears that the U.S., eager to wrap up a decade in Afghanistan, will try to impose a political settlement with the Taliban, the official said.
Marc Grossman, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, says the U.S. is only taking steps to help Afghans talk directly with Afghans. He told Pakistan's Dunya TV on Tuesday in Washington that more work was needed before an office could be opened.
"Everybody has to agree that Qatar would be the right place. Qataris have to talk directly to Afghans — that's a really important thing as well," Grossman said. "And also, I believe to show they're earnest in this, the Taliban need to make a statement around the opening of this office — if it were to open — about their disassociation from international terrorism and also about their commitment to a political process."
Khar was the first high-level Pakistani official to visit Kabul since last fall when relations between the neighbors soured after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and former head of the government's peace council. He was killed in his Kabul home Sept. 20, 2011, by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban. Afghan officials blamed insurgents based in Pakistan.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul hailed Khar's visit as a breakthrough toward better relations and said there can be no permanent peace until there is serious and honest cooperation between the nations.
The ministry said Karzai would travel to Islamabad Feb. 16-17, when he would be expected to push Pakistan to follow through on concrete steps Afghanistan wants Pakistan to take to facilitate the peace process, according to an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate negotiations.
Davood Moradian, assistant professor of political science at American University in Kabul, said he thinks Khar's trip to Kabul was an effort to capitalize on differences emerging between the Afghan government and Washington over the peace process.
"Deepening the division between Kabul and Washington that will weaken both Kabul and Washington is the main objective of Pakistan," he said. "I don't think they have any interest in genuine cooperation with us on the peace process."
However, a person familiar with Khar's visit to Kabul stressed that Pakistan was willing to help forge peace. The individual, who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose details of the day's discussions, said Khar held in-depth meetings with members of Afghanistan's ethnic minority factions. They fear that Karzai, a member of the majority Pashtun group, will make too many concessions to the Taliban to shore up his Pashtun base.
Afghan officials did not give the indication that peace talks in Saudi Arabia were imminent, although Pakistan did signal that it would help facilitate safe passage for insurgent leaders to attend talks in future venues as it had for those traveling to Qatar, the individual said.
Khar's visit to Kabul came on the same day a classified NATO report was leaked, claiming that the Taliban believe they will return to power after the U.S.-led coalition ends its combat role in Afghanistan in 2014. The report, which was based on the interrogation of more than 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qaida and foreign fighters, was obtained by the BBC and other news organizations.
According to excerpts of the report obtained by the BBC, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence is "thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel. The Haqqani family, for example, resides immediately west of the ISI office at the airfield in Miram Shah, Pakistan," the report said.
In October 2011, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said the Haqqani network, which is affiliated with the Taliban, "acts as a veritable arm" of the Pakistani intelligence agency — an accusation that Pakistan has denied. Mullen accused the network of staging an attack against the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul on Sept. 13 as well as a truck bombing that wounded 77 American soldiers in Wardak province. He claimed Pakistan's spy agency helped the group.
The NATO report also said that although they are tired of the fight, surrender was far from the insurgents' mindset — that they believed they were receiving support from Pakistan and were doing well on the battlefield.
Khar dismissed the allegations in the report as "old wine in an even older bottle. I don't think these claims are new."
"So I think that I can just disregard this as potentially a strategic leak or otherwise," she added.
Nick Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency, said the report indicated the morale of Taliban fighters remained extremely high after 10 years of war — and in spite of a massive military effort mounted by the U.S. and its NATO allies in the past two years.
"The report does confirm what has been increasingly obvious for a number of years — that this Afghan operation has turned into a great misadventure for the West," said Witney, a senior policy fellow at the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations.
But German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, said the insurgency "is clearly on the back foot."
"We have been pressurizing them over the summer, we have taken vast amounts of land out of their hands and we have detained a high number" of militants, Jacobson said.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. would like to see ties severed between some elements of Pakistani intelligence and militant groups.
"That's not a strategic decision that we get to make — that's a strategic decision that folks in the ISI need to make."
NATO officials cautioned that the report was a summary of interrogations and was not based on an intelligence analysis.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, director of the Joint Staff's Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell, warned that the insurgents' comments must be kept in context.
"The folks that are quoted in this report are some of the most ideologically committed folks on the enemy's side," he told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "I don't think they're representative, one, of the Taliban as a whole, nor are they representative of the Afghan people."