WASHINGTON "Does talking to the Taliban or other extremist groups lead to peace?" is the topic on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul's Facebook discussion page this week.
The embassy does not give its view -- toeing the line that talks must be Afghan-led and not dictated by Washington -- but it is an issue President Hamid Karzai is expected to hammer out in meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama next week.
A peace assembly, or "jirga," is planned by Karzai in Afghanistan this month to discuss ways to bring the Taliban to the table. The Taliban has so far dismissed Karzai's re-integration efforts.
U.S. officials said they wanted to make sure Karzai was on the same page as Washington before the assembly, with one senior official saying reconciliation was "in the mix" of issues being discussed during Karzai's May 10-14 visit.
"A big part of this will be to make sure they are singing from the same sheet of music (on reconciliation) when he goes back to Afghanistan," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Karzai sees the jirga as one of the major initiatives in his plans to reach out to insurgents this year. But Washington says it is too early to expect a breakthrough in talks with senior Taliban, particularly as U.S. military operations gain momentum in the coming months.
"There are certain red lines. Anyone willing not to cross those red lines can participate in the process," said a senior U.S. official when asked about reconciliation.
Those "red lines" include that senior Taliban commanders must renounce violence and links to al Qaeda as well as respect the Afghan constitution, which includes women's rights.
Asked over the weekend whether she was resigned to the fact the Taliban would ultimately be part of any Afghan government, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said simply: "No."
"You've got to look to see who is reconcilable. Not everybody will be," Clinton told NBC.
KARZAI NEEDS U.S. BACKING
U.S. relations have been particularly tense with Karzai in recent months following a string of anti-Western statements by the Afghan leader.
The hope is that his White House meetings will underscore Washington's commitment to Afghanistan and Karzai will not feel pressured to cut deals with the Taliban and other militants due to fears he will be abandoned, particularly in the buildup to the target date of July 2011 for U.S. troops to start leaving.
"Karzai knows we are pulling out and so he wants to cut a deal (with the Taliban) that will save him," said Christine Fair, assistant professor at Georgetown University and expert on Afghanistan. "He is going to play his cards."
But Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a former premier and leader for an anti-Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, said Karzai needed U.S. backing to talk to the Taliban.
"Without the American consent and approval, Mr. Karzai will not be able to do anything with regard to the negotiations with the Taliban," he said.
Afghanistan expert Bruce Riedel said the administration still appeared divided over how to handle talks, with some showing flexibility but the Pentagon not wanting the process to start until they had the upper hand on the battlefield.
"The question here is, do we have a joint strategy for moving forward on a political process? He (Karzai) is ready to go forward and is waiting to see what we will be prepared to go along with," said Riedel, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution.
"Even if you are very skeptical about the Taliban's willingness to talk, you had better have a game plan."
"IT'S ALL ABOUT TIMING"
Former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq, Ryan Crocker, cautioned the Obama administration against pushing Karzai too hard on who should or should not be included in talks.
"It seems to me that we have got to have a basic trust in Karzai as the leader of Afghanistan and I really don't think we should be in the business of negotiating with him over who he does and does not deal with," said Crocker, now with Texas A&M University.
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal's adviser on reconciliation, retired British General Graeme Lamb, had a similar view when he spoke to Marines at a conference in Quantico, Virginia, last month. He said one lesson from Iraq was not to "get ahead of the government" in talks with militants.
Allies should not expect too much to emerge from the jirga this month, he said, but choosing the right moment for talks was key, and Karzai needed to understand this.
"You know, it's like sex and good dinner: It's all about timing," Lamb said.
U.S. Embassy in Kabul Facebook page site: here#!/topic.php?uid=34734118909&topic=1566
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; Editing by Xavier Briand)