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Why NATO and the Taliban are stepping up the fight - even as talks get under way

Afghanistan saw an uptick of violence as Afghan President Karzai announced that the US and the Taliban are, indeed, meeting.

By Staff writer, Correspondent / June 20, 2011

A police officer stands guard as Afghans gather close to a police station that came under attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday, June 18. President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that Afghanistan and the United States are engaged in peace talks with the Taliban, even as gunmen stormed a police station hours earlier near the presidential palace.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

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New Delhi; and Kabul, Afghanistan

Two big pieces of news emerged this weekend from Afghanistan: dramatic reports of violence and confirmation that the United States and the Taliban are meeting. The fighting does not mean talks are not serious, say experts who expect both to coexist as the country struggles to find its equilibrium.

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Just hours after Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed reports of talks between the Taliban and the US, gunmen stormed a police station Saturday near the presidential palace. The same day, eight NATO troops were killed. Today, a pair of drones struck Pakistan in Kurram Agency, a region rarely under fire by US drones.

While intense fighting does not help the rapport between negotiators, both sides want to show battlefield momentum in order to attain more leverage at the peace table. The decentralized nature of this insurgency also makes cease-fires a less likely feature of this peace process.

“Talking to one group of insurgents that are a part of this network cannot prevent violence from other pillars of this network,” says Waliullah Rahmani, a security analyst in Kabul. That may be true even if a peace deal eventually is reached. “Violence will continue, and those that are irreconcilable, they will intensify their efforts and their insurgency.”

Many close observers agree that a major step has taken place in the peace process. Mr. Karzai's announcement merely referenced what had leaked a month ago, says Michael Semple, an informal mediator in the Afghan talks. Der Spiegel had reported meetings between a deputy of Mullah Omar named Tayyab Agha and US representatives from the State Department and CIA.

“The key difference with this [set of talks] was these were properly mandated officials from both sides. Even if they haven’t progressed very far on the agenda, the fact that they have credentials makes this more important than previous indirect contacts,” says Mr. Semple.

Previous discussions between Taliban and international figures were limited by uncertainty regarding the authority of those involved and the filtering of messages through intermediaries. In the fog of this type of early dialogue, NATO once brought a “Taliban representative” to Kabul who turned out to be an imposter.

The current talks, while direct, remain shrouded in secrecy even to allies and underlings on all sides. The peace process will eventually need to involve a much broader range of stakeholders.

Is the Afghanistan government involved in talks?

The Afghan government’s High Peace Council is not participating in the US-Taliban talks at the moment, and may not even be privy to its details.

“I don’t have any details of this process that is going on between the Taliban and the Afghan government,” says Moulabi Attaullah Loudin, a member of the council. “It is a separate process, but it’s good for us.”

Whole factions of the insurgency also don't appear to be involved in these talks, including the hard-line Haqqani network as well as the more flexible Hizb-e-Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

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