(Reuters) – U.S. and NATO advisers in Afghanistan have urged President Hamid Karzai not to rush into deals with insurgents as part of a national reconciliation process that they envision lasting several years, Western officials said on Friday.
Karzai’s reconciliation push has raised expectations about talks with the Taliban to end the war but also exposed policy differences within the Obama administration on how to proceed at a time of heightened tension with the Afghan leader.
Karzai plans to hold a “peace jirga,” or assembly, to promote reconciliation with insurgents starting May 2. Pakistan and some insurgent groups have started jockeying for position in anticipation of negotiations, however far off they appear to be, officials said.
Having committed to send 30,000 more troops to try turn the tide against the Taliban before the start of a gradual drawdown in mid-2011, the Obama administration is skeptical of Karzai’s timing but is considering supporting what could become a “talk and fight” strategy.
The biggest stakeholders — including Islamabad, Washington and Kabul — could agree on the conditions for reconciliation by year’s end, said Graeme Lamb, top adviser to the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, on reintegration and reconciliation issues.
But Lamb added that “rushing to a deal would not be either favorable or durable,” echoing the message of other top officials who met recently with Karzai.
A senior U.S. diplomat involved in the effort, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reconciliation process, once launched, was likely to drag for at least three years because of the complexity of the issues and divisions among key players.
Some U.S. officials worry that Karzai will try to cut deals with some insurgent groups before a consensus has been reached on the details of the reconciliation process and its participants, jeopardizing the military aims of President Barack Obama’s troop surge.
KARZAI’S OFFER SPURNED
In private meetings, U.S. officials have said they were struck by how serious Karzai appeared to be about trying to reach reconciliation agreements.
While Washington has backed efforts to lure lower- and mid-level Taliban to lay down arms, it has been wary of efforts to reach out to their leaders, arguing that more military pressure should be applied first to weaken the insurgency and enable Karzai to negotiate from a “position of strength.”
But a senior U.S. diplomat in Kabul said “there is some thinking going on in Washington” now about being more open to reconciliation, even to Karzai’s proposed outreach to Taliban leaders that the Pentagon has described as unreconcilable, including hard-line chief Mullah Mohammad Omar.
“It is really important that we do try to establish a set of conditions” for reconciliation, Lamb said.
But he added: “We’re not at a point of negotiation. We’re at a point of improving our understanding. We’re at the point of establishing early dialogue … The result will be that we will be better placed to explore the boundaries and where the contested areas of interest lie.”
He told Reuters that while major shareholders in the process should be able to settle some of those issues in 2010, “the enduring success of this initiative will then take a number of years.”
The Taliban have spurned Karzai’s offer to talk, although another insurgent group, Hezb-i-Islami, sent a delegation to Kabul to present a peace plan.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was up to Karzai to decide whether to try to reconcile with insurgent groups, such as Hezb-i-Islami, one of three that is fighting foreign troops.
Mullen, who visited Afghanistan this week, acknowledged the flurry of recent reconciliation talk but added: “I don’t see it as determinative, decisive activity at this point.”
Washington has made clear that insurgents who want to reconcile must renounce violence and al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan constitution, conditions that are unacceptable to the Taliban.
Before committing to reconciliation, Pentagon war planners want to see more concrete signs that military pressure in Afghanistan, and across the border in Pakistan, is weakening the Taliban, a process that will hinge largely on how the campaign in the southern city of Kandahar unfolds.
“We’ll get indicators throughout ’10, strong indicators, of which way this is going,” Mullen said. “We’re moving to a position of strength. But I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
(Editing by Paul Simao)