- The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan is meeting with Afghan President Karzai
- It's not clear if the Haqqanis will be part of any Afghan peace process
- U.S. officials believe the Haqqanis receive sanctuary from Pakistani intelligence
- The Haqqanis are just one possible component in a peace process with many hurdles
U.S. diplomats are pursuing negotiations with the Afghan Taliban with renewed vigor -- but among many questions and obstacles ahead is this: will the powerful Haqqani network be included in any future dialogue?
The Haqqanis are undoubtedly the best resourced and trained part of the insurgency, and their recent high-profile attacks in the heart of the capital have targeted top US and Afghan officials.
But it's not clear if the Haqqanis -- widely thought by U.S. officials to receive sanctuary and support from Pakistani intelligence officials -- will be part of any peace process that might evolve from talks between U.S. and Taliban representatives in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Some Western and Afghan officials with knowledge of the talks say the Haqqanis are an integral part of the Afghan Taliban insurgency and so an implicit part of negotiations; their possible involvement in negotiations will likely face opposition from Kabul and Washington.
One senior Afghan official, who did not want to be named while discussing confidential contacts, said, "The Haqqani network is not the subject of discussion in any way."
He added that the current talks involved only the Qatar process -- as part of which the Taliban would open an office in the gas-rich Gulf state to facilitate discussions. And he reiterated that "one strand" of the insurgency was involved - the Taliban leadership widely thought to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta under the leadership of Mullah Omar.
The Afghan official said: "It is too early to talk about who else can join. But reconciliation is open to anyone that meets the terms."
But a second senior Afghan official who requested anonymity for the same reasons, said the Haqqanis could be included. "The Afghan government has always referred to the 'armed opposition,'" he said. "The reason is to include all armed groups."
The Haqqani network has operated for more than 20 years and played a significant role among the Mujahedeen groups that fought the Soviet occupation. It is currently led by Sirajuddin Haqqani -- and is regarded by U.S. military commanders in the region as one of the most effective and dangerous arms of the insurgency.
But the Haqqanis are just one possible component in a peace process that has many hurdles.
The first major public challenge is being tackled this weekend in Kabul. The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, is meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss whether Kabul wants to be part of a process that has been very much American-led so far, angering Afghan officials.
Talks on Saturday night were described as "going well" by one senior Afghan official. But last week another Afghan government official laid out Kabul's position after months of being sidelined. He said: "The last cards are with us. So far it has been a U.S.-Taliban business. We have not been involved in this so I cannot say what was discussed. We are hearing different things from Taliban representatives, different things from U.S. officials."
Those with knowledge of the U.S. position say there can be no progress without President Karzai signing on. A Western analyst with knowledge of the U.S. side of the talks said: "The U.S. will not negotiate anything about anything without the government of Afghanistan."
A Western official with knowledge of the discussions added that the talks simply could not and would not fail -- an indication of how much political capital the United States is ready to invest in dialogue.
Ismail Qasimyar, a member of the High Peace Council established by Karzai to ignite the peace process, said, "When Americans and Taliban talk they cannot make any decision that can be executed on Afghan soil, as whatever people decide has to be decided by Afghans themselves. When Afghans are not involved, it becomes irrelevant."
Qasimyar added he believed there was "no option" but to talk to the Haqqani network, despite the "crimes they have committed, especially in Kabul."
If Karzai commits to the U.S.-initiated process, a series of confidence-building measures are then expected from both sides. The Taliban want the release of several high-profile Taliban leaders from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
But Qasimyar says this won't be easy -- given the opposition of the U.S. Congress to prisoners being released from Guantanamo. Some U.S. military officials are also opposed to seeing some of these individiuals released.
Another possible obstacle comes from the United National Front, which represents Afghanistan's non-Pashtun minorities, who can muster considerable popular support and military might. They include Uzbek general Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ahmadzai Massoud, leader of National Movement, and former spy chief Amrullah Saleh. These power brokers, who assisted the United States in its initial invasion area, recently told a U.S. congressional delegation in Berlin that they feel threatened by the nascent peace process, as it may give the Taliban a dangerous foothold in government.
One of the delegation in Berlin, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, said, "They were talking about the safety of every person who sided with the Americans against the Taliban. They made it very clear this was life-threatening."
He said they wanted Afghanistan's government to become a parliamentary democracy that could, in their opinion, more fairly represent the diverse ethnic society. "It is a very legitimate request that they have a restructuring of government," Rohrabacher said.
"They want a more accountable form of government and wanted to head off the State Department's strategy to get out of Afghanistan by creating a coalition of Karzai and the Taliban."
The road to these peace talks has been fraught with leaks of tentative discussions; at one point, an impostor claimed to represent the Taliban. But after nearly five years of tentative contacts -- in which German, British and Norwegian officials have all played a part -- the Taliban announced earlier this month that they would open an office in Qatar to assist future talks.
An observer with detailed knowledge of the discussions said: "The announcement (of Qatar) came from nowhere."
He said Afghan officials had explored the possibility of a Taliban office in Turkey or Saudi Arabia but "the Saudis did not want Taliban running around Riyadh with a formal office." Qatar was chosen as neutral ground, with the office providing less a place out of which Taliban negotiators would operate, and more a reliable and accessible address for messages from U.S. or Afghan officials.
While the United States has been represented by Grossman, the face of the Taliban has been Tayab al-Agha, an aide of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban's ruling council, the Quetta Shura. Agha has previously been reported in negotiations with U.S. or NATO officials to little avail. But the observer said there "have been some modest steps taken (by Tayab al-Agha) that has got us to the point where we believe he is representing the Quetta Shura. But this is the first rung of the ladder. We have to get to the second one."
He said such steps might involve U.S. negotiators asking that the Taliban's next message to the media should contain certain pre-arranged phrases to prove their interlocutor had connections to the insurgency's main figures. Such moves would be part of the complex road ahead in which both sides need to test each others' ability to deliver on what they negotiate.
"There are three elements to any deal: Is there room for honest negotiation? Can the person deliver a deal? and, Can the person sell the idea?" said the observer.
"All these three things are open to question, but the thing that is not is their willingness to talk," he added. The telling moment would come when either side chose to test the other's ability to deliver. And he acknowledged that skeptics felt the Taliban were trying to buy time ahead of the U.S. and allied drawdown of troops.