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[David Ignatius] Positive signs for talks in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON ― The “fighting season” has started in Afghanistan, with deadly attacks almost every day. But at the same time, diplomats see what one calls “hopeful signs” that a regional framework for peace talks with the Taliban may slowly be emerging. 

The most important development is that Germany has been mediating secret talks between the U.S. government and Tayyab Agha, a Taliban official who in the past has had close links with the group’s leader, Mohammad Omar. The German-sponsored talks were disclosed Tuesday in Der Spiegel and confirmed to me by a well-informed U.S. source.

Agha is described in Der Spiegel as “Mullah Omar’s personal spokesman.” U.S. officials aren’t certain of that, and they are trying to establish whether Agha speaks for Omar and his Quetta Shura, or for a faction of it, or whether he is a lone wolf. In any event, he could be the most credible Taliban official to surface so far in outreach efforts over the past two years by U.S., European and regional governments.

The German mediation has been guided over the past year by Michael Steiner, a veteran diplomat who is Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The effort was begin by his predecessor, Bernd Mutzelburg. The Germans hope their diplomatic contacts will ripen in time for a major conference on Afghanistan scheduled for December in Bonn.

A second positive trend is that India and Pakistan are speaking in similar language about their support for an Afghan-led negotiated settlement. An important signal came from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a May 13 speech in Kabul. He endorsed President Hamid Karzai’s “process of national reconciliation” and said India “will respect the choices you make.”

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir used similar language Monday when he backed an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process. He was echoing comments made in Kabul in April by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief. Indeed, on paper, there’s little difference between the Indian, Pakistani and American positions supporting a negotiation that concludes with a Taliban agreement to renounce violence, reject al-Qaeda and support the Afghan constitution.

Friction between India and Pakistan has been a major obstacle to an Afghan settlement in the past. So it’s interesting that the new diplomatic efforts come as “a dialogue process is on” between New Delhi and Islamabad, according to one Indian source. This dialogue has included recent meetings between the two nations’ secretaries for foreign affairs, home affairs, commerce and water resources. Indian officials caution that Pakistan must also crack down on the Islamic militants responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Singh’s speech in Kabul got relatively little attention in the Western press. But diplomats noted this passage: “We hope that Afghanistan will be able to build a framework of regional cooperation that will help its nation-building efforts.” That hope is shared by Marc Grossman, the new U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who has been pushing for a “diplomatic surge” on various fronts.

A third positive trend is on the battlefield itself. The U.S.-led coalition entered this fighting season having cleared several major Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, providing more leverage. There’s some independent evidence that the Taliban is feeling the pressure.

Interviews done in April with 1,400 Afghan men by the independent International Council on Security and Development showed that respondents in nine of 14 districts surveyed believed the U.S.-led coalition is winning the war. In the southern battleground provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, 61 percent of those surveyed favored negotiations with the Taliban. ICOS surveyed a smaller sample after Osama bin Laden’s death May 2, and 68 percent said it was good news, according to Norine MacDonald, head of the group.

The Afghanistan battle turns on a dirty war of night raids against Taliban leaders by U.S.-led Special Forces and a counteroffensive of Taliban fighters assassinating Afghan officials working with the U.S. It’s hard to judge where the balance lies in this fight, but it’s a grinding war that may make both sides more ready for a diplomatic outcome.

The death of bin Laden created an opening to resolve a conflict whose triggering personality is now gone. What’s encouraging is that other positive signs are pointing in the same direction, toward an Afghan peace process that has regional support. Grossman is a quieter diplomat than his predecessor, Richard Holbrooke, but he seems to be making some progress. 

By David Ignatius

David Ignatius’ email address is ― Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)