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Any Afghan talks would start secretly - expert

LONDON (Reuters) - Any eventual talks with the Afghan Taliban would likely be preceded by secret contacts to shed light on the group’s “complex cast of characters” and their motivations, a leading Western expert on insurgency says.

U.S. Marines from Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and Afghan soldiers patrol the market of Karu Chareh in Marjah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan February 24, 2010. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

President Hamid Karzai’s main ally, the United States, says Washington is not in direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, and any eventual discussions will have to go hand in hand with military success.

But some contacts appear to be taking place, albeit indirectly. Afghan politicians and Taliban-allied representatives held talks at a resort in the Maldives last month. The United Nations has declined to comment since a U.N. official said U.N. envoy Kai Eide met Taliban representatives in Dubai in January.

In a Reuters interview, Audrey Kurth Cronin, a senior associate in the Changing Character of War programme at Oxford University, said that it was common practice in peace-making for combatants to use secret talks to gauge each other’s positions and assess whether a deal was possible.

“Talks are always accompanied by back channel talks ... A lot of the time you have to send people who are deniable, sometimes intelligence officials or third parties,” Cronin said.

“It’s not a question of negotiations, or no negotiations. It’s a question of what level you are negotiating at, and how publicly,” she said.

“It would almost be a kind of a neglect of a duty of many senior government officials not to have those kind of low level back channel feelers.”

President Hamid Karzai has launched a high profile push to reconcile with his “disenchanted brothers” in the Taliban and has called on its leaders to attend a peace council of elders.

Few in Afghanistan see hope for a quick breakthrough while fighters smell victory on the battlefield and are tightening their hold over much of the country.

But Cronin, author of several works on insurgency including “How Terrorism Ends”, a 2009 study of 475 armed groups active since 1968, says that in Afghanistan political considerations were as important as military ones in preparing negotiations.

POLITICAL STALEMATE?

With the Taliban unable to capture urban areas from U.S. forces, the question to ask was whether the Taliban saw itself as being in a political statement, Cronin said.

Such an interpretation -- that the Taliban was unable to achieve its political aims through more war -- would encourage the Taliban towards talks, Cronin suggested. Gauging opinion among the Taliban’s sub-groups would not be easy, she cautioned.

“When we talk about the Taliban we’re talking about a complex cast of characters. We use that term so freely.”

Some analysts say the U.S. aim of transferring security to Afghan forces from July 2011 will encourage the Taliban to refuse talks in the belief Washington will abandon Karzai.

But Cronin said that was not necessarily a barrier.

“U.S. troops would be back in Afghanistan very quickly if there were a renewed threat emanating from there to the U.S. homeland. And the Afghans know it,” she said.

“If the armed groups relish the prospect of restarting a civil war amongst themselves -- i.e., there is no political stalemate -- then that is what will happen.”

But there were reasons to believe Afghan armed groups did not relish such a prospect, she said.

“There are both positive and negative indicators. One positive indicator, for example, is that the Taliban faction led by Mullah Omar has failed to mobilise popular support this time. And the international community is much more involved.”

“Negative is the possibility individual factions may still believe that they can “win” in some way that is meaningful.”

Editing by Richard Williams

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