Clinton: US still open to Taliban talks
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration still welcomes peace talks with the Taliban despite the militants' angry claims that the United States double-crossed them in preliminary discussions, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.
The Afghan insurgent group announced last week it was pulling out in frustration, and accused the United States of changing the terms of the discussions. The Obama administration is trying to foster talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai that could broker an end to the insurgency.
"The Taliban have their own choice to make, but let there be no doubt that the United States is prepared to work with all Afghans who are committed to an inclusive reconciliation process that leads toward lasting security," Clinton said.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Afghan officials worked separately to resolve a dispute over military raids on Afghan homes that had become a bitter sticking point. Under a draft agreement expected to be signed this week, Afghan military units would take a larger role in planning and carrying out the raids, with the United States moving into a supporting role. An Afghan judge or panel would have a say, if not full veto, over operations the Afghans complain cause too many civilian deaths.
U.S. officials described elements of the security agreement on condition of anonymity because it is not final. Negotiators were expected to finish it Thursday in Kabul. Control over what Afghan call "night raids" was the last issue holding up a larger agreement governing U.S.-Afghan relations after most foreign forces leave in 2014.
That agreement is expected to be a centerpiece of a NATO summit the United States will host in May. President Barack Obama and Karzai could sign the document then, or perhaps earlier if they arrange a separate meeting.
"These are complicated issues, but we are resolving them," Clinton said following a meeting with Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul.
Rasoul agreed, saying he is "confident that we'll reach soon a conclusion."
Clinton also told reporters the U.S. remains firm on "red lines" for engaging the Taliban, but she called on the militants to rethink their decision to mothball plans for a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Washington supports the office as a neutral headquarters for negotiations, but plans to open it this spring bogged down in part over U.S. and Afghan objections to its name. The Taliban wants to brand the office as an entity of the "Islamic Emirate" of Afghanistan, the name under which the Taliban movement controlled the country before being toppled by U.S. forces in 2001.
That dispute and a larger one over the inclusion of Afghan government representatives in future talks had derailed contacts between the militants and U.S. representatives even before the burning of the Quran by American troops and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians allegedly at the hands of a U.S. soldier.
Rasoul plans to travel to Qatar in early April for discussions about the proposed office and the possible release of Taliban prisoners to Qatar if talks with the militants resume. That release is a key Taliban demand as a starting point for true negotiations that would probably take years.
The United States plans to pull its combat forces out in 2014 whether those talks have borne fruit or not, but U.S. and Afghan officials hope the talks can reduce violence and draw Pakistan into a productive role fostering a peace deal.