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Afghanistan peace talks at standstill

| Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, 9:14 p.m.

When President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced on Jan. 11 that a negotiating office for the Taliban was about to open in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, optimism soared within the administration that peace talks would soon be back on track.

But January's optimism has become February's reality check: There is still no agreement to open the office, and Karzai, back in Kabul, says there will be no deal until Qatar meets his conditions in writing.

As the Obama administration nears a decision on the pace of U.S. combat troop withdrawals from Afghanistan between now and the end of 2014, jump-starting reconciliation has become a key element of its exit strategy.

Without some kind of political initiative under way as its forces leave, the administration fears that the United States will again be accused of abandoning the region, just as it was at the end of the Soviet Union's Afghan occupation in the early 1990s. If another civil war breaks out, as many fear, Afghanistan's neighbors will again choose sides.

In addition, U.S. hopes of positioning a post-withdrawal counterterrorism force in Afghanistan to continue the fight against remnants of al-Qaida could be compromised.

More immediately, negotiations are critical to hopes for a prisoner exchange with the Taliban that could bring a homecoming for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. service member known to be a Taliban captive.

The challenges, some of which lie within the administration, are formidable. Those who won first-term internal debates over an agreement on peace talks worry that the military, long opposed to negotiations, will dig in its heels as new members of the president's national security team are brought up to speed.

The summer fighting season in Afghanistan, always an inauspicious time for talking with the Taliban, is nearing.

Taliban leaders have been stubborn, setting their own conditions for resuming negotiations with the United States, which came to an abrupt halt early last year. The insurgents are seen as divided between those who want to wait out the American departure and those who think it's time to start on a political path.

Karzai is the biggest cause of U.S. teeth-gnashing, and not for the first time, according to several administration officials who agreed to discuss the rocky road to withdrawal.

The crux of the latest disagreement is Karzai's demand that Qatar produce a written memorandum of understanding agreeing to his preconditions for the Taliban office in Doha.

His demands include assurances that the office would not be used for any “political purpose” other than direct negotiations with Afghanistan, that it have a fixed time frame and be closed if talks do not take place, and that all Taliban negotiators provide “documentation” proving they are legitimate representatives.

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