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No Afghan-Taliban peace talks, for now

Kabul may have tried to reach out to current insurgents by meeting with former Taliban in Saudi Arabia late last month.

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Nonetheless, officials in Kabul may be intending to use the former Taliban members as intermediaries between them and the current Taliban, says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. "Some of these former Taliban have ties to current Taliban, especially some junior members of the movement," he explains.

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For example, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaif, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who attendted the Mecca meetings, is widely respected within Taliban circles. Abdullah Zakari, an early ally of Mullah Omar who has since left politics, and former foreign minister Mullah Muhammad Ghaus also attended the talks and are said to still have friendly relations with the Taliban leadership.

The Taliban, however, are unlikely to come to the table as their position in Afghanistan strengthens. "[T]he Taliban will never formally negotiate with Karzai," says Hamid Gul, a former chief of Pakistan's intelligence agency, known for his close historical relationship with the Taliban. "They won't budge an inch especially at a time when America is seen as losing the war."

Outside interest in talks

Yet many outside Afghanistan would like to see peace talks begin. Sources familiar with last month's meetings sayPrince Turki Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence agency, also attended. Mr. Faisal is said to have a close relationship with the Taliban and often acted as an intermediary between the Saudi government, Pakistan, and the Islamic insurgents in the 1980s.

Saudi authorities may have been prompted to host the talks out of concern for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officials in Riyadh may see a stable Pakistan as a counterweight to longtime rival Iran. In addition, the Saudis' similar religious outlook to the Taliban and their close ties to the group – Saudi Arabia was one of three countries to recognize the regime when it was in power – may make them an ideal candidate to eventually start a peace process.

Media reports suggest former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was also present at the meetings. While Mr. Sharif has not confirmed this, he has a history of attempting to bring warring parties in Afghanistan together. During the height of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, Sharif tried to broker a deal among leading warlords. Later, as prime minister, he cultivated close ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Western officials – who in a series of recent statements have suggested that the Afghan war cannot be won militarily – may be hoping that these meetings can initiate a process by which moderate Taliban peel away from extremists. "The US would certainly like to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and the bulk of the Taliban," says political analyst Mr. Rahmani.

On the ground, however, news of the Mecca meetings may have only strengthened the Taliban's resolve. "These so-called negotiations are a joke, but it shows that the Afghan government and their friends are failing and losing this war," says a Taliban commander from the province of Ghazni. "It tells us that even the government realizes that they are a failure."

Caryle Murphy contributed from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Shahan Mufti contributed from Islamabad, Pakistan.