As the Obama administration ponders reaching out to moderate Afghan insurgents, Kabul has opened preliminary negotiations with the country's most dangerous rebel faction, the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network.
The group is accused of masterminding some of the most brazen attacks here in recent years, and a deal with them will likely be key to ending the war.
"If the Haqqanis can be drawn into the negotiation process," says Kabul-based political analyst Waheed Muzjda, "it would be a serious sign that the insurgents are open to one day making a deal."
The Haqqani network is one of three major insurgent groups here, along with the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin (HIG). Of these, the Haqqanis have orchestrated the majority of the major suicide bombings in Kabul and have significant influence in the southeastern provinces. The group counts many foreign fighters among its ranks and is much closer to Al Qaeda than the other groups, according to US intelligence officials. This influence tends to make the Haqqanis more extremist than other groups.
Preliminary talks between the Afghan government and various insurgent groups have been taking place for months. In September, government officials and a group of former Taliban members met in Mecca. The former Taliban agreed to act as intermediaries between government and the insurgents, and met regularly with government representatives in Afghanistan and in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.
In the subsequent months, the mediating group began to contact the Taliban leadership and the heads of the Haqqani network. "We've contacted the Haqqanis indirectly," says one member of the mediation team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They were open to hearing our proposals."
Road map to a settlement
The mediators drafted a road map for an eventual settlement. In the first stage, the Haqqani network should stop burning schools and targeting reconstruction teams, and the US military should stop house raids and release Haqqani-network prisoners (similar provisions were proposed to the Taliban).
Representatives of the Haqqani network have agreed in principle to the road map as a starting point for negotiations. But the specifics may change as talks proceed.
"These are the types of issues that we can start off with," says Maulavi Arsala Rahmani, a senator and a member of the mediating team. "It is still subject to change – right now everyone is looking to get a bigger piece of the cake."
The draft proposal states that if these conditions were met on both sides, the next step would be to agree on a system of government. The Haqqani network and the Taliban say they want an "Islamic Emirate" based solely on their interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia. The government currently is an "Islamic Republic," where versions of sharia and a parliamentary republic coexist. The final stage of the proposal would be setting a deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces.
"It is a matter of give and take," says Mr. Rahmani. "When Obama said there is no military solution, the Taliban and the Haqqanis saw an opening for talks."
Jalaluddin Haqqani, who leads the group, was an influential mujahideen commander and US ally during the war with the Soviets. He later served as a minister in the Taliban government, though he never formally became a Taliban member. After the 2001 US invasion, he fled to Pakistan, and slowly built up a network of fighters. By 2007, his network emerged as an independent insurgent group, distinct from but allied to with Taliban.
The Afghan government has reached out to the Haqqani network before, but with little success. In 2007, President Hamid Karzai sent a tribal delegation and a letter to Mr. Haqqani in an attempt to sway him, but to no avail.
Even if agreements are reached with other insurgent factions, the Haqqani network's close ties to the extremists of al Qaeda may make it more difficult for the Afghan government to come to an agreement.
Toughest step: get US on board
The biggest challenge, however, is that the road map places conditions on US operations, something the Afghan government has little control over.
"It will be impossible for the American military to stop house searches," says Haroun Mir, policy analyst and director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies based in Kabul. House searches and detentions are a fundamental part of American counterinsurgency strategy, he says, and are unlikely to be abandoned.
Analysts say the Americans are more likely to give political concessions, not military ones. There have been a few instances where insurgent commanders have crossed over to the government side and were given government posts.
"Ultimately, the US will have to come to a political settlement, and that may mean a situation where insurgent leaders are brought into the government," says Mr. Mujzda.
For example, talks have taken place intermittently over the past few years between the government and representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of HIG. Officials have reportedly considered offering him a government position.
But Jalaluddin Haqqani and other leaders of the Haqqani network are unlikely to accept any government posts without a commitment from the US to withdraw troops, says Nasrullah Stanakzai, a political analyst at Kabul University.
Moreover, there appears to be a contradiction between the Afghan government's attempts to reach out to Haqqani and recent statements by the Obama administration. Officials in Washington have said they want to reconcile with low-ranking fighters and "moderates," while isolating higher-ranking leaders. The Afghan government's initiative to reach out to Haqqani runs counter to this.
The Haqqani group, like other insurgents, are operating from a position of strength, says Mr. Stanakzai. "The Afghan government initiated these talks, not the other way around. The Afghan government will have to try to convince the Americans to come on board, otherwise these negotiations won't be fruitful."