KABUL: With violence in Afghanistan flaring to record levels as Western troops begin to withdraw and key cities are handed over to local forces, experts say peace talks with the Taliban are becoming ever more urgent.
Secret US-Taliban contacts have reportedly been made in Germany and Qatar, but the prospect of permanent American bases remains deeply contentious and the meetings have not developed into serious talks about ending the 10-year war.
With seven areas of Afghanistan being handed over from Nato to local control this week and tens of thousands of troops leaving in the next 18 months, analysts agree that the need for peace talks has never been more pressing.
Gilles Dorronsoro, an Afghanistan analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said summer 2012 is the de facto deadline for a peace deal, as by then troop levels and funding for the Nato-led mission will have been reduced by a third.
“After that it will be very difficult because of pressure from the Taliban,” Dorronsoro said.
He believes Taliban attacks will rise as troops withdraw, but said peace talks could still make headway by then.
But, he said, key to any progress will be help from Pakistan, whose border areas with Afghanistan provide sanctuary to Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked networks who have so far shown no willingness to lay down arms.
“Why wouldn't the Taliban negotiate? Pakistan asks them to, they can win international recognition, money and they won't be bombed every day,” he said.
But he said: “The Taliban won't talk to (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai, because the key point of the negotiations is the retreat of foreign forces.”
“And American bases are an essential talking point in negotiations,” he said, adding that Pakistan would agree on a limited foreign military presence for counter-terrorism purposes.
The drawn out Nato-led military fight is due to end by late 2014.
But the transition process has already been marred by violence, with a suicide attack killing four people on Wednesday in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the safest cities in Afghanistan and due to be handed over this weekend.
Journalist and regional expert Ahmed Rashid outlined low-key US-Taliban contacts in the Financial Times last month, saying the first face-to-face talks took place in Munich, Germany, in November 2010.
The 11-hour meeting between Taliban and US officials was chaired by a German diplomat and attended by Qatari officials, Rashid said.
A second round of talks took place in Qatar in February, and a third in Germany in May, all with the same participants, and with the Taliban pushing for the release of prisoners and the removal of sanctions, according to Rashid.
Karzai mooted the idea of a deal with the Taliban last year and refers to them as “brothers”, even calling for peace at the funeral of his brother, shot dead last week in an attack claimed by the insurgents.
But a 70-member High Council for Peace established by Karzai late last year to seek peace with the Taliban has achieved little.
Kabul-based analyst Thomas Ruttig, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said the Taliban's ability to negotiate “is hampered by the lack of a political arm” to talk on the militants' behalf.
A Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said it was not clear whether the Taliban were ready to negotiate, and they were worried about US bases.
“There have been some communication channels opened at quite high levels but so far we have no guarantee that those involved have the mandate to negotiate,” he said.
The dismal state of Pakistan-US relations has not helped, with Pakistanis keen to hedge on the Taliban leadership believed to be based on their soil.
“The problem with the Pakistanis is if they take away support from the Taliban they fear it will come back to haunt them,” the diplomat said.
But as weariness with the war grows, public diplomacy aimed at making a settlement more palatable to Western voters has been ramped up in recent weeks.
“Because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement that ultimately is going to be critical in consolidating that country,” President Barack Obama told veterans in New York.