WASHINGTON The United States is seeking to accelerate fragile talks with the Taliban so it can announce serious peace negotiations at a NATO summit in May, officials say, in what would be a welcome bright spot in Western efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration is hoping it can declare a start to authentic political negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban at the May 20-21 summit in Chicago, after a year of initial, uncertain contacts with militant representatives.
It would be a needed victory for the White House and its NATO partners in Afghanistan as they struggle to contain a resilient insurgency and train a local army while at the same time moving to bring their troops home over the next three years.
But even meeting the goal of setting political talks in motion, let alone completing them, will not be easy.
U.S. diplomats must execute a series of good-faith measures, including moving Taliban detainees out of Guantanamo Bay military prison; convincing militants to drop their opposition to talks with an Afghan government they deem illegitimate; and navigating political opposition at home months before a November election that President Barack Obama hopes will give him a second term.
The administration had tried to pull those elements together before a global summit in Bonn, Germany in December.
A senior U.S. official, while not disputing that some in the Obama administration want the peace talks announced by the Chicago summit, cautioned that Afghan reconciliation is not formally on the agenda.
NATO leaders will focus on how and when to shift the military mission in Afghanistan to an advise-and-train effort, giving Afghan security forces the lead in combat missions.
As for the peace talks, "We want reconciliation done as soon as possible," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even if the Obama administration is successful in getting the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, whose government was toppled in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, at the same table to discuss the country's political future, there are no guarantees that talks would yield a deal.
There is even less certainty about whether an agreement would stick.
The motivations of the militant group, whose leadership is based in Pakistan, remain mysterious even as the White House prepares to send negotiators to a new meeting with Taliban representatives that could solidify the transfer of the five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay prison to Qatar.
It is not known if the Taliban is truly interested in peace, or simply wants to recover its prisoners and wait out a Western coalition that appears determined to narrow its involvement in a long, costly war.
Critics of the U.S.-led reconciliation plan note that the Taliban's incentive for making concessions may be lessened considerably due to an accelerated timeline for wrapping up the NATO military role in Afghanistan.
France has announced it will pull its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2013. In a move that could signal a swifter U.S. exit as well, the Pentagon said last week that U.S. forces will cede the lead combat role to Afghan forces next year.
While Obama's decision to send an extra 33,000 'surge' troops to Afghanistan in 2009-10 certainly weakened the Taliban, the militant group remains potent, able to re-equip and regroup across a poorly controlled border with Pakistan.
END OF COUNTERINSURGENCY?
In that gloomy context, the State Department-led peace initiative, a controversial idea among U.S. officials from the start, has taken on increasing importance.
Merely setting the talks in motion would be a victory for the White House, helping the United States to transition the bulk of its forces out of Afghanistan with the promise of a possible political settlement.
While the obstacles are numerous, most worrying to many of Obama's closest advisers may be the simmering opposition to the transfer of five former senior Taliban out of Guantanamo.
Even Obama's Democratic allies appear reluctant to defend the prisoner transfer or, more generally, to go to bat for a plan that could return some degree of power to a group known for its brutality and its links to al Qaeda.
The Obama administration has stressed that its eyes are open about the risks inherent to its peace gambit.
In one reflection of its attempts to contain those risks, the administration has been considering a plan under which, if the detainee transfer is approved by both sides at the upcoming meeting, Taliban prisoners would be transferred to Afghan custody in Qatar in two tranches.
Two or three detainees would be sent initially. If all went well after a waiting period, and the detainees did not slip away to rejoin the fight, the remainder could follow.
The Chicago summit is also expected to bring into focus Washington's strategy for withdrawing the bulk of its approximately 90,000 soldiers remaining in Afghanistan.
Under a plan announced by Obama last year, the United States will shrink its force to around 68,000 by fall 2012, officially ending Obama's 'surge.' Still unclear is how quickly he will remove the remaining forces.
Several news organizations reported over the weekend that the Pentagon was moving to shift its Afghan focus to special operations. While most Western combat troops are due to leave by the end of 2014, the United States hopes to keep a small force focused on counterterrorism and training there beyond then.
One U.S. official said that while no decisions have been made, one plan under consideration would shift conventional forces to a new special operations command that would be headed by a two-star general. That general would report to the overall commander of U.S. and NATO troops.
"If the nature of the mission changes from counter-insurgency and conventional combat to counterterrorism-focused efforts, in support of Afghan security forces, it stands to reason," the official said on condition of anonymity.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu)