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US and Afghan Government "In Direct Talks" with Haqqani Insurgents (Borger/Walsh)

Yesterday, we posted a report of talks between the Government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban. The article included the caveat, "The not include representatives of the Haqqani group, a separately led faction that U.S. intelligence considers particularly brutal and that has been the target of recently escalated U.S. drone attacks in northwestern Pakistan."

Writing in The Guardian of London, Julian Borger and Declan Walsh offer a significant change to the story:

Both the Afghan and US governments have recently made contact with the most fearsome insurgent group in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, the Guardian has learned.

Hamid Karzai's government held direct talks with senior members of the Haqqani clan over the summer, according to well-placed Pakistani and Arab sources. The US contacts have been indirect, through a western intermediary, but have continued for more than a year.

The Afghan and US talks were described as extremely tentative. The Haqqani network has a reputation for ruthlessness, even by the standards of the Afghan insurgency, and has the closest ties with al-Qaida. But Kabul and Washington have come to the conclusion that they cannot be excluded if an enduring peace settlement is to be reached.

A senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "you wouldn't be wrong" when asked whether talks involving Haqqani, Karzai and the US were taking place. But he refused to comment further, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

A senior western official said the US now considers the Haqqani network to be more powerful than the Quetta Shura, the 15-man leadership council headed by the Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar.

"The Quetta Shura is still important but not as much as people thought two years ago. Its prestige and impact have waned, and they are increasingly less important on the battlefield. Now the military threat comes from the Haqqanis," the official said.

The twin poles of the insurgency are located at least 250 miles apart along the Durand Line, the lawless Pakistani border. The Haqqanis, who come from Khost in Afghanistan, are anchored in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. The Washington Post reported today that there had been top-level contacts between Kabul and the Quetta Shura, but not the Haqqani network. Kabul and the Haqqanis have also denied any contacts. The CIA chief, Leon Panetta, said in June that he did not believe the group had any real desire for reconciliation.

However, the contacts were confirmed to the Guardian by western, Arab and Pakistani official sources, who all said the Haqqanis sense that a negotiated settlement is the most likely outcome of the conflict, which enters its 10th year today, and are anxious not to be excluded. Speaking of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has taken over military leadership of the Haqqani group from his ailing father, Jalaluddin, a diplomat involved in the discussions said: "The ice has broken. He realises he could be a nobody if he doesn't enter the process."

Drawing a parallel with the Northern Irish peace process, the diplomat said: "The Haqqanis know that they have to make the transition from the IRA to Sinn Fein."

According to several sources, a Haqqani delegation, including Sirajuddin's brother and uncle, visited Kabul accompanied by senior officers from the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which has been the group's sponsor since the start of the conflict, for talks with Afghan officials.

A diplomatic source familiar with the talks said the Haqqani side had been noncommittal. "Even though they were sitting opposite each other talking, they were saying: 'Imagine if we did have talks, what would be the political framework?'"

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