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After Afghanistan conference, an optimistic Karzai

After last week's Afghanistan conference in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai returned home optimistic, with money pledged for reconciliation with the Taliban and promises that his government will soon be given control over half of Western aid.

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The day-long London meeting will also have “focused the attention” of the Afghan president and his inner circle, as one American official put it, by a strong leitmotif that the NATO deployment is “not open-ended,” and by constant references to a “transition of responsibility” to Kabul and to Afghan police and army security in provinces “starting this year,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated.

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Potential part for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

Pakistan’s military and security apparatus are known to have significant ties to Taliban that have been at odds with the war policy against them – and one of the chief benefits of a Taliban engagement policy would be to tap this often murky area of contact and influence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday that "there will be no peace in this region unless Pakistan carries its share of responsibility." She told the German weekly Welt am Sonntag that, "for a comprehensive solution, we need a much greater involvement of Afghan authorities and the inclusion of neighboring countries, in particular Pakistan."

Retired Pakistani Brig. Sultan Amir Tarar of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, long considered to have formed the Taliban in the 1990s, told the British daily Guardian last Friday that Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in hiding, is ready to begin peace talks. "He doesn't want adventure. He has enough of that," he said.

Saudi Arabia also has street power in the Afghan Muslim community through widespread religious missions, including its promotion of the Wahhabi strain of Islam. Saudi clerics and many local imams in Afghanistan do not consider that Osama Bin Ladin to be the only voice of Islam in the Hindu Kush, and Riyadh may have some reach, should the dynamics inside the country change from the status quo. Saudi authorities also have funds to back new ideas or dynamics, according to experts in London.

UN-Taliban meeting last month?

On the sidelines of the London conference, UN special envoy Kai Eide purportedly said he met unspecified Taliban leaders in Dubai – though later said he did not meet them on Jan. 8, the date reported in some media, and offered no further comment. The Taliban deny any meeting with Mr. Eide – and say on their website that a policy to “bribe” Taliban soldiers to stop fighting is a nonstarter, and can only begin after the 110,000 foreign soldiers leave the country.

Mr. Tarar of the ISI in the Guardian interview said talks did take place in Dubai with low level Taliban leaders. Karzai in London also confirmed such a meeting, speaking with Kabul-based reporters.

Rahimullah Yousefzai, a longtime analyst of the Taliban based in Peshawar, Pakistan, told his employer Newsweek that hard-core Taliban are not fighting for money and will be difficult or impossible to reconcile.