WASHINGTON, Oct 6 The White House said on Wednesday that it supports high-level talks between the Afghan government and senior Taliban representatives who also enjoy the blessing of the insurgent leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
“We're certainly supportive of that. Obviously, we and the Afghans have said that largely requires a renunciation of Al Qaeda, following Afghan law, and renouncing violence,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters in Washington.
“But this is something that has to be Afghan-led, and we've supported for quite some time,” he added.
“What about specifically Mullah Omar's involvement? If, in fact, that's the case, does that change the dynamic?” a journalist asked.
“Again, this is about Afghanistan and has to be done by the Afghans,” Mr Gibbs replied.
“So how would you describe the US governments involvement or role in this?” he was asked.
“Well, again, this is not something that we do with the Taliban. This is something that the Afghan government has to do with people in Afghanistan. And we have always been supportive of that reconciliation,” the White House official said.
Diplomatic observers in Washington say that the White House's reaction reflects a major change in the US attitude as in the past US opposed all contacts with Mullah Omar or his representatives. But Mr Gibbs's comments show that at least the US is not opposing the Karzai government's discussions with Mullah Omar's representatives.
Recently, Gen David Petraeus, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that he had personal knowledge of high-level contacts between the Taliban and Karzai government.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the Taliban and Karzai government had begun secret, high-level talks over a negotiated end to the war.
Afghan and Arab sources who spoke to the Post emphasised the preliminary nature of the current discussions, but also pointed out that for the first time Taliban representatives were fully authorised to speak for the Quetta Shura and its leader Mohammad Omar.
“They are very, very serious about finding a way out,” one source close to the talks said of the Taliban.
Although Mullah Omars representatives have long publicly insisted that negotiations were impossible until all foreign troops withdraw, sources said the Quetta Shura had begun to talk about a comprehensive agreement that would include participation of some Taliban figures in the government and the withdrawal of US and Nato troops on an agreed timeline.
The leadership knows “that they are going to be sidelined”, a source close to the talks told the Post. “They know that more radical elements are being promoted within their rank and file outside their control. . . . All these things are making them absolutely sure that, regardless of [their success in] the war, they are not in a winning position.”
Arab and European sources that spoke to the Post said the discussions with the Quetta Shura did not include representatives of the Haqqani group, which has been the target of recently escalated US drone attacks inside Pakistan.
The Post claimed that the Haqqani group was seen as more closely tied to the Pakistani intelligence service than the Quetta Shura.
One Afghan blamed Pakistan's insistence on a central role in any negotiations for making talks difficult even with the Quetta group. “They try to keep very tight control,” this source said of the Pakistanis.
The Post also quoted Afghan, Arab and European sources as saying that they see a distinct change of heart in the Obama administration toward fully backing the negotiations.
Although President Obama and his national security team have long said the war would not be won by military means alone, sources said the administration only recently appeared open to talks rather than resisting them.
Any domestic political difficulties that could result from a negotiated deal with the Taliban would be resolved by ending the war earlier rather than later, a European official in Kabul told the Post. “A successful policy solves the political problem,” he said.