Afghan, Taliban peace talks set to begin


Associated Press

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

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 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

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.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is considering slowing its military exit from Afghanistan by keeping a larger-than-planned troop presence this year and next because the new Afghan government is proving to be a more reliable partner, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Saturday.

Carter, on his first overseas trip since starting the Pentagon job Tuesday, also said the Obama administration is “rethinking” the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, although he did not elaborate.

No decisions have been made, but President Barack Obama will discuss a range of options for slowing the U.S. military withdrawal when Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visits the White House next month, Carter said at a news conference with Ghani. The presidents also plan to talk about the future of the counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan, he said.

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.

There are about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000 as recently as 2010-11.

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