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Holbrooke: Nothing close to formal peace talks in Afghanistan

By Tom Cohen, CNN
  • U.S. special envoy says "daunting task" remains
  • Holbrooke downplays magnitude of Taliban-government talks so far
  • Lack of Taliban leadership structure prevents Dayton-style negotiations

Washington (CNN) -- Reconciliation talks in Afghanistan between the government and Taliban insurgents are less formal than full-fledged peace negotiations, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said in an interview broadcast Sunday.

In comments to CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" program, Holbrooke said the contacts so far involve "an increasing number of Taliban at high levels" who have approached President Hamid Karzai's government to talk about possible reconciliation.

According to Holbrooke, media reports may have created the false impression of formal negotiations akin to the process that led to the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian conflict.

"That is not the case," said Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan who was a major figure in the Dayton talks.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, has acknowledged that U.S. and NATO troops are ensuring security for Taliban fighters and insurgent leaders who want to travel to meet with government officials.

"Indeed, in certain respects, we do facilitate that," Petraeus recently told a London audience, "given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul" if the NATO forces were not aware and willing to allow it to happen.

Inside the International Security Assistance Force, it is privately acknowledged by top officials that this has included "safe passage," essentially promising not to attack or bomb convoys or locations that may involve insurgents trying to contact the Karzai government.

But several top ISAF officials also caution that substantive progress has not yet been made in getting Taliban and insurgent leaders to talk to the government. As one indicator, British Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, head of the ISAF reintegration effort, told CNN that safe passage events "are fairly rare things, to be frank."

Holbrooke said lack of a clear Taliban leadership structure prevents the contacts so far from approaching any kind of formal negotiation.

"There's no Ho Chi Minh. There's no Slobodan Milosevic. There's no Palestinian authority," he said in reference to well-known peace negotiations involving Vietnam, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Middle East. "There is a widely dispersed group of people that we roughly call the enemy."

Among the elements comprising enemy forces in Afghanistan are al Qaeda, "with which there's no possibility of any discussion at all," as well as the Afghan Taliban, which "seems to be a loose organization with a very shadowy arrangement," Holbrooke said.

He also named the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, a terrorist group that that has tried to attack the United States; the Haqqani network, which he called "a notorious, separate group of Afghan Taliban inside Pakistan who do a great deal of the mayhem and carnage inside Afghanistan;" and the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba group involved in the Mumbai, India, terrorist attack.

"Now, I've just listed five groups. An expert could add another 30," Holbrooke said. "So the idea of peace talks ... doesn't really add up to the way this thing is going to evolve."

Holbrooke emphasized that a successful solution to the Afghanistan conflict remains a "daunting task," and that a military solution is not the goal.

"We can't win it militarily, and we don't seek to win it militarily because a pure military victory is not possible, as Gen. Petraeus and his colleagues have repeatedly said," Holbrooke explained.

"The American public should understand that this is not going to be solved overnight," he said. "It is going to be a difficult struggle. It has a political component, where you're not trying to win this war militarily, and a Dayton-type negotiation is also very unlikely. But some kind of political element to this is essential, and we are looking at every aspect of this."

In Afghanistan, Petraeus' military strategy includes significantly increasing ground and air attacks to pressure the Taliban into believing they have no option but to come to the negotiating table.

ISAF officials say the current rate of strikes is about four to five times what it was 18 months ago.

State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley recently said American officials are not involved in the talks between the Afghan government and members of the Taliban leadership, but U.S. officials do have "some knowledge" of what's going on during the meetings.

Crowley said ISAF has advance knowledge of the meetings and ensures that "there is safe passage for these meetings to take place."

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.