The U.S. and Afghan governments have begun secret three-way talks with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told The Wall Street Journal, disclosing an important breakthrough in efforts to end the 10-year war.
Mr. Karzai, whose government had protested being left out of recent talks between Washington and the insurgents, added he believes most Taliban are “definitively” interested in a peace settlement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai: ‘People in Afghanistan want peace, including the Taliban. They’re also people like we all are. They have families, they have relatives, they have children, they are suffering a tough time.
“There have been contacts between the U.S. government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together, including the Taliban,” Mr. Karzai said in the interview Wednesday in his office at the Arg Palace in Kabul.
He declined to specify the location of the talks or go into further detail, saying he feared that could damage the process.
Mr. Karzai’s remarks suggest progress in tentative peace efforts as President Barack Obama begins withdrawing forces and prepares for the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
U.S. officials cautioned against reading too much into what came out of the three-way session, which was held in the past month to prepare the ground for further contacts.
Taliban spokesmen couldn’t be reached to comment.
Meetings between Taliban emissaries and the U.S. in recent months have centered on opening a Taliban office in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, and on confidence-building measures such as a possible transfer to Qatar of Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. and Taliban officials said.
A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. had assured Mr. Karzai that “all we were interested in was seeing if we could open the door for Afghan-to-Afghan talks.”
These contacts began gaining traction about a year ago, after U.S. and German diplomats secretly met an aide to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. has been regularly briefing Kabul about these discussions, Mr. Karzai said. Until now, however, the insurgents have declared publicly that they won’t negotiate with Mr. Karzai’s “puppet regime.”
Mr. Karzai on Wednesday brushed off those denials. “We were talking to the Taliban, we were talking to the senior-most of them,” he said. “We keep hearing in the press from time to time that the Taliban do not want to talk to us, but that’s someone making a statement.”
Afghan officials said just weeks ago they were unhappy with Qatar’s prominent role in the initial talks, and feared Kabul would be marginalized.
Mr. Karzai said the U.S. has now accepted his government’s views and conditions, including a demand for representation in negotiations, and has conveyed them to Qatar and the Taliban.
“We have now reached an agreement,” Mr. Karzai said. “That means what we want has been put into action by the U.S. government, and what we want has been seen as being right.”
Significant hurdles to any possible deal remain, the largest being what Kabul and Washington say is Pakistani support for Afghan militant groups.
Mr. Karzai said he will ask for Islamabad’s help in the peace outreach at a summit on Thursday in Pakistan with the Pakistani and Iranian presidents.
“Pakistan’s cooperation would make the whole matter easier for us, for the Taliban, and for the U.S.,” he said.
Pakistan’s foreign minister said on a recent Kabul visit that she backs an Afghan-led peace process with the Taliban.
Mr. Karzai said he has seen no indication that the Pakistani intelligence service is ready to reduce its backing for the Afghan insurgency. Pakistani intelligence officials have denied fomenting attacks in Afghanistan.
Afghan efforts to open contacts with the Taliban were dealt a blow in September with the assassination of the top Afghan negotiator, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Afghan officials blamed the killing, by a purported Taliban emissary who arrived from Pakistan, on Pakistani intelligence. Pakistan denied the charge.
The latest round of talks is taking place after U.S. officials said they verified the bona fides of their Taliban interlocutors, and after the Taliban’s leadership officially confirmed the group is talking with the U.S.
Mr. Karzai said separate negotiations with the U.S. on a strategic partnership agreement-which would establish a long-term American role in Afghanistan-don’t contradict his peace quest, despite Taliban assertions they will keep fighting as long as a single foreign soldier remains on Afghan soil.
The Taliban, Mr. Karzai added, might even accept, in the framework of a peace agreement, a deal with the U.S. that allows for the long-term presence of American troops.
“People in Afghanistan want peace, including the Taliban. They’re also people like we all are. They have families, they have relatives, they have children, they are suffering a tough time,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the Taliban who are the sons of the soil, and who do not want this country, the people of this country, to suffer.”
In the partnership talks with the U.S., friction persists over Mr. Karzai’s demands the U.S.-led military coalition end night raids on Afghan homes, and that the U.S. transfer all Afghan prisoners to Afghan custody.
Coalition officials explain that while they are moving to address Mr. Karzai’s concerns, doing so will require strengthening Afghan security forces first.
Mr. Karzai insisted the deal with the U.S. won’t be signed unless his conditions on night raids and detentions are accepted.
“This is no longer related to the war on terror. This is an issue of Afghan sovereignty, and a partnership can only be signed between two sovereign entities,” Mr. Karzai said.
Mr. Karzai, however, also indicated flexibility on the issue of immunity for American service members in Afghanistan, a deal-breaker in last year’s attempts to negotiate a similar agreement between the U.S. and Iraq.
“That’s an issue that we can discuss,” Mr. Karzai said, adding: “We want a partnership with America. And we will do all we can to make that possible.”