US speeds up talks with Taliban

Washington: The US has accelerated direct talks with the Taliban that American officials hope will enable President Barack Obama to report progress towards a settlement of the Afghanistan war when he announces troop withdrawals in July, a media report on Tuesday said.

A US representative attended at least three meetings in Qatar and Germany, one as recently as "eight or nine days ago," with a Taliban official considered close to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the group`s leader, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior Afghan official as saying.

However, State Department spokesman Michael A Hammer did not comment on the Afghan official`s assertion, but said the US had a "broad range of contacts across Afghanistan and the region, at many levels… We`re not going to get into the details of those contacts".

The daily said the talks, initiated several months ago, have proceeded on several tracks, including through non-governmental intermediaries and Arab and European governments.

The Taliban has made clear its preference for direct negotiations with the Americans and has proposed establishing a formal political office, with Qatar under consideration as a venue, according to US officials.

An attempt to open talks with the insurgent group failed late last year when an alleged Taliban leader, secretly flown by NATO to Kabul, turned out to be a fraud. "Nobody wants to do that again," a senior Obama administration official said.

Other earlier meetings between Afghan government representatives and Taliban delegates faltered when the self-professed insurgents could not establish their bona fide as representatives of the group`s leadership, the daily said.

But the Obama administration is "getting more sure" that the contacts currently underway are with those who have a direct line to Omar and influence in the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, or ruling council he heads, according to one of several senior US officials who discussed the closely held initiative only on the condition of anonymity.

American officials hope these talks will enable Obama to report progress towards a settlement of the Afghanistan war as the July deadline to begin troop withdrawals nears.

The officials cautioned that the discussions were preliminary. But they said "exploratory" conversations, first reported in February by the New Yorker magazine, have advanced significantly in terms of the substance and the willingness of both sides to engage, the daily reported.

Rumours of the talks have brought a torrent of criticism in recent weeks from Afghan President Hamid Karzai`s political opponents, who say that he will ultimately compromise Afghan democracy.

The Taliban, one US official said, is "going to have to talk to both the Afghans and the Americans" if the process is to proceed to the point that it would significantly affect the level of violence and provide what the Taliban considers an acceptable share of political power in Afghanistan.