ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The Taliban have held secret talks with representatives of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to try to jumpstart a peace process that stumbled and stalled at the starting gate, according to Afghan officials and a senior Taliban representative.
The discussions with members of the Afghan High Peace Council have so far been unofficial and preliminary, seen as an attempt to agree on conditions for formal talks. But they do suggest an interest on both sides in proceeding, or at least toying, with a peace process that has been mired in controversy since the official opening of a Taliban political office in June in the Gulf nation of Qatar.
Habibullah Fauzi, a former Taliban diplomat who is now a member of Karzai's High Peace Council, told The Associated Press that "some individuals (on the peace council) have met Taliban on an individual basis," though he would not say who or when. He also said he'd heard reports of meetings in Saudi Arabia between High Peace Council members and Taliban who were in that country to perform the Islamic pilgrimages of Umrah and Hajj.
"The Afghan government certainly is in contact with certain leaders and certain figures among the Taliban," Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Musazai said Sunday at a news conference in Kabul.
The Taliban marked the opening of their political office in Qatar by flying their white flag, emblazoned with a Quranic verse, and a sign that identified it as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. That enraged Karzai, who accused the religious militia of trying to establish a government in exile. Peace talks involving the United States that were to follow the official opening ended before they could begin, threatening the possibility of a negotiated end to 12 years of war.
Last week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought Pakistan's help to press the Taliban into opening negotiations with Karzai's representatives. The Taliban's leadership is believed to be living in Pakistan.
"The hope is that they will start talks soon with the High Peace Council," Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Pakistan's prime minister on national security and foreign affairs, told the AP on Sunday. "It is at a very fragile place right now."
One of the Taliban's representatives in Doha, Qatar told the AP that secret talks with the High Peace Council have already begun.
The representative, who was a senior official in the Taliban government during its five-year rule that ended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, said that Taliban negotiator Mullah Abbas Stanikzai met last month with a senior member of the High Peace Council in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. He said the two tried to reconcile differences and pave the way for an official meeting.
The Taliban representative talked with the AP in Islamabad in a rare face-to-face interview. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had ordered his spokesmen to refrain from public statements.
At the Dubai meeting, Stanikzai said the Taliban would not compromise on the use of their flag and name, according to the Taliban representative, who also said the Taliban considered the High Peace Council chairman Salahuddin Rabbani a controversial figure because of his father, Burhanuddin Rabbani, an anti-Taliban fighter and former president who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2001.
But the Taliban also offered concessions at the Dubai meeting, the Taliban representative said. The Taliban is ready to discuss the existing Afghan constitution, which he suggested the religious movement would be willing to accept except for three clauses. He did not identify the offending clauses.
He also said the Taliban leadership was ready to acknowledge that it made a mistake in denying girls access to education and politics. He said the Taliban were prepared to accept women as lawmakers. While the religious military will not participate in the 2014 Afghan elections, it would consider participating in the following round.
But he said the Taliban would want the winner of next year's balloting to succeed Karzai to be only an interim ruler, holding a second election soon after the last of the foreign troops leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
He also said the Taliban would not compromise in their opposition to any foreign forces remaining in Afghanistan after 2014, saying the religious movement was not convinced that a residual force would restrict its activities to training and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces. The size of a residual force has not yet been decided but it is expected to include U.S. Special Operations Forces for hunting down al-Qaida militants.
"The talks will likely restart soon," the representative said, adding that both sides still remain far apart and that the Taliban have little trust in Karzai. "Pakistan is talking to us and advising us" to open talks, he said, adding that the Taliban are also trying to patch up differences within their own ranks.