Talks between Afghanistan, Taliban set to start after decade of war

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP)

After more than a decade of warfare, negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are set to begin, officials, diplomats and experts said as President Ashraf Ghani declared that peace is closer now than at any time since the war began following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

On Saturday, Ghani said that "the grounds for peace have never been better in the last 36 years" of continuous Afghan wars, including 13 years of conflict with the Taliban.

Since taking office in September, Ghani has rolled out a complex strategy aimed at forcing the Taliban leadership to accept that their cause — replacing his government with an Islamist emirate — is hopeless. He has enlisted the support of regional countries believed to protect, fund and arm the Taliban, including Pakistan which is pressuring the insurgents to open a channel for peace negotiations, officials and diplomats said.

A senior Afghan official, who spoke on condition he not be identified as he was not authorized to discuss the issue, said hopes are high that a dialogue, as a precursor to full-scale peace negotiations, will begin soon.

Other sources said contact between the two sides could begin as early as March. There is currently no dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to officially brief the media.

Speaking at a joint press conference Saturday with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Ghani said: "Our approach is productive. We are hopeful. The direction is positive but we cannot make premature announcements."

The Taliban, whose leadership is based in the Pakistani cities of Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar, declined to comment on the prospect of peace negotiations, repeating their long-held position that all foreign troops must first leave the country.

The U.S. and NATO have around 13,000 troops in Afghanistan training Afghan security forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida. President Barack Obama's current plan is to halve the 10,000 Americans by the end of this year, and cut that number to near zero by the end of 2016. At the peak of the war in 2009-10 there were 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

But Carter on Saturday hinted that the current withdrawal timeline might be up for review, at Ghani's request. Carter did not say Obama was considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, only that the president was rethinking the pace of troop withdrawals for 2015 and 2016 and was "rethinking the details" of the U.S. counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan.

No decisions have been made, but Obama will discuss a range of options for slowing the U.S. military withdrawal when Ghani visits the White House next month, Carter said.

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