WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama was briefed on talks between Afghanistan’s government and what a report described Wednesday as Taliban commanders at the “highest-levels” facilitated by NATO troops.
In his monthly war cabinet with top civilian and military advisors, Obama was also getting an update on latest operations in his high-stakes troop surge strategy and likely on high vote fraud in Afghanistan’s parliamentary polls.
The meeting in the secure White House Situation Room went ahead after new details emerged of fledgling reconciliation talks between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and elements of the Taliban rebel group.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Taliban leaders at the “highest level” were involved in the contacts and that they were being offered safe passage by NATO troops from their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
In one case, Taliban leaders crossed the border and boarded a NATO aircraft bound for Kabul, the paper said, though added that most of the discussions had taken place outside the Afghan capital.
The White House has backed Afghan efforts to talk with elements of the Taliban, even as the US military ratchets up the intensity of the surge and insurgent attacks reap a heavy toll among foreign troops.
US officials insist that Taliban fighters who want to embrace reconciliation must renounce violence and lay down their arms, and have played down the potential for what are still described as “preliminary” contacts.
But the Times suggested that some officials hoped it might be possible to “split” the Taliban movement, and get large numbers of fighters to defect to the Afghan government.
However, the report said it remained unclear how much influence was wielded within the movement by Taliban figures involved in the talks had.
Karzai this month launched the High Council for Peace, the latest effort to persuade the Taliban and other insurgents to negotiate an end to the war which has entered its 10th year.
The Taliban has denied a claim by Karzai that it is taking part in the talks, more than nine years after they were driven from power by a US-led invasion after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday that Obama would be given an update on the discussions along with wider Afghan strategy.
“Reconciliation led by the Afghans has been a topic of many of the past meetings,” he said.
“I can expect that we’ll get an update from General (David) Petraeus, Ambassador (Karl)
Eikenberry and others on where they see the progress on those talks and their hopes for seeing that progress continue.
“I anticipate, as in the past, that will be a big topic.”The meeting, which started at 11:15 am (1515 GMT) included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and key military and intelligence officials.
Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan and Eikenberry, joined the meeting by video-conference, as did Biden, who was on the campaign trail, ahead of mid-term elections on November 2.
The talks went ahead after Afghan election authorities threw out 1.3 million votes over suspected fraud in last month’s parliamentary election, nearly a quarter the 5.6 million cast.
US officials had predicted before the election that there would be high levels of fraud and irregularities, but said they were confident that Afghan political institutions were now sufficiently robust to deal with the situation.
More than 150,000 US and international troops are now in Afghanistan, with their number boosted by the 30,000 strong-surge strategy which Obama announced last year and which is now reaching its peak.
When he announced the new plan in December, Obama also insisted that the first US troops would start coming home by July 2011, as part of an speeded up effort to transfer authority to Afghan troops and political leaders.
Karzai said earlier Wednesday that he was hopeful “that we will all see improvement in the security situation of our country in one year or two.”