KABUL (Reuters) - Media reports of high-level talks between the Taliban and Afghan government may serve Western military aims by sowing confusion and undermining trust among insurgents, analysts and diplomats say.
A flurry of reports of negotiations, preparations for negotiations and even clandestine meetings in the Afghan capital may reflect a growing willingness by both sides in recent months to contemplate some kind of dialogue.
But coming as NATO-led forces make a push on the Taliban’s spiritual heartland, the stories may -- intentionally or unintentionally -- further military aims.
“I had email contact with a Taliban on the other side (of the border) and he rejected the contact or talks, but at the same time spoke about the confusion,” said Waheed Mozhdah, an analyst and former Taliban official who is still in touch with members of the movement.
“This is more of the psychological war against the Taliban,” he added, referring to the impact of the reports on trust within the group.
A senior NATO official said on Wednesday that NATO-led forces were facilitating contacts between senior Taliban officials and the Afghan government and allowing them safe passage for talks in Kabul.
A senior Pakistani official familiar with the contacts between the Karzai government and Taliban on Thursday also acknowledged a shift in attitudes.
“The process has been set into motion. It’s just the beginning and this in itself is a success because earlier there has been opposition (by Americans) to such contacts,” he said.
“These are pretty senior level contacts ... They are those who are involved in putting up resistance. Those who are fighting.”
Like officials and sources quoted in other recent stories about talks, both NATO and Pakistani officials requested anonymity. A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai declined to comment on the reports.
There is increasing acknowledgement in Afghanistan and abroad that a decisive military victory for the West and the Afghan government it backs is unlikely, and an eventual political solution may be the best way to end the fighting.
But rumors and nebulous stories about plans to talk can often undermine unity in insurgent groups, making rank-and-file members wary of their leaders, and leaders wary of each other.
A Kabul-based diplomat laid out the military benefits of talks for the top NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan David Petraeus, saying foot soldiers who hear news of talks may become mutinous -- or at least less willing to risk their lives in battle.
NATO’s apparent embrace of a move toward talks could send a message to wavering insurgents that they have an opponent who is serious about looking to sit down and make a deal.
“This has a major propaganda component. NATO is trying to pass on a message to the Taliban leaders that it can play a role in reconciliation ‘if you are ready’,” said Ahmad Saeedi, a former diplomat to Pakistan.
But sowing discord among the enemy just as you are trying to hammer them on the battlefield could also be aimed at pressuring them to come to the table faster.
A senior former Taliban official now living in Kabul and in contact with the movement’s leaders has in the past told Reuters that the one vital condition for successful talks is secrecy.
The Taliban appear well aware of the risks of any move toward talks. In a statement this week spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the reports as “baseless propaganda ... part and parcel of a regular psychological warfare of the enemy.”
He promised foot soldiers there would be no “trade on your blood and sacrifices by reaching any clandestine deal.”
The veiled identity of most people willing to talk on the subject is compounded by the vague nature of most accounts of who is involved, and from which factions.
A report from NATO-led forces this week announced the capture of a “Taliban senior leader” in southern Afghanistan who commanded 20 men, a small group for a movement estimated to be thousands of fighters strong.
If those traveling to talk in Kabul are at a similar “senior” level, they may just be disgruntled local commanders seeking cash or an exit from a conflict they have tired of, analysts say, instead of its ideologically-driven core.
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMBAD and Emma Graham-Harrison in KABUL; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison, Editing by David Fox)
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