WASHINGTON: The United States is engaging in intense exploratory talks with the Taliban in a bid to launch Afghan-led negotiations aimed at ending a decade-long war, but such negotiations face daunting hurdles.
Questions swirl around a flurry of talks involving State Department special envoy Marc Grossman who wants the Taliban to set up an office in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar to serve as an open platform for negotiations.
Analysts said that while the United States has made clear it intends to hand negotiations over to the Afghans and see the bulk of US and allied forces leave by 2014, Washington does not know Taliban intentions.
Do the Taliban really want to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, which they call a US puppet, and seek a political process? Or do they simply want the exit of all foreign troops from Afghanistan?
"We may not be able to discern the answers for some time," according to Bruce Riedel, a south Asia and Middle East expert with the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
Then there is the unanswered question, he said, of whether the Pakistani military -- which he believes exerts "enormous control over the Taliban leadership" -- is "interested in a real political process."
"I think in practice what this means is a very, very careful (US) approach with low expectations until we see whether we can answer these two questions," said Riedel, a former CIA analyst and White House advisor.
"As confidence-building measures, analysts said, the United States would like to test Taliban intentions with "local ceasefires" while the Taliban wants Washington to release five prisoners from the US prison in Guantanamo Bay.
With President Barack Obama facing reelection in November, his administration has said it has taken no such decision.
"That's a very sensitive domestic political issue in the United States in an election year," Riedel told AFP.
Ashley Tellis, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it would be "dreadfully premature" for Washington to release prisoners until the Taliban make clear they are interested in a peace process.
Such a deal, analysts said, would probably involve transferring such prisoners to house arrest in Qatar.
Local ceasefires, Tellis said, can be reneged upon after the bulk of forces leave.
On the positive side, Tellis said "the administration has confidence for the first time that they are actually speaking to the right people," who are delegates of the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar, the Taliban spiritual leader.
Tellis said he believed the US intention is to strike a deal with the Taliban by the end of 2014. "But I don't know of anyone outside the government who believes that such a deal is possible on that timeline," he added.
One reason such a timeline is too ambitious, he said, is that "there are fundamental questions about whether the Taliban will actually agree to the Afghan constitution," which includes protections for women.
Another is "the whole question of how exactly does one implement and operationalize the demand that the Taliban lay down arms," when so many factions will be involved, he said.
The United States would also like the Taliban to break with Al-Qaeda, but enforcing any such "promise will be difficult," Tellis said.
There is an even greater obstacle for the Taliban, who have publicly called for the exit of all foreigners from Afghanistan and yet the United States wants to keep a residual force there for long after 2014, he said.
Riedel said the United States wants to retain a base in Afghanistan to be able, if needed, to strike Al-Qaeda militants in safe havens in neighboring Pakistan.
The problem with the 2014 combat troop withdrawal deadline, Tellis said, is "we've created all manner of incentives for the Taliban to engage either in spurious negotiations or in dragged out negotiations."
Despite the doubts surrounding Taliban intentions, Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, said "it's certainly conceivable that a section of Taliban could be persuaded to enter politics."
He pointed out that some former Taliban already sit in the Afghan parliament, according to the text of interviews recorded by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Taliban, Coll said, could agree to power-sharing in the central government and approve of a devolved administration in which "former Taliban are governors of provinces where they've historically been influential."
Under such a devolved system, Riedel told AFP, areas populated by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras would also have different rules and regulations.
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