Afghan President Hamid Karzai's offer of safe passage for Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar to attend peace talks appears to have been scuttled by objections from both the Islamist militia group and the United States.
On Sunday, Mr. Karzai made a risky offer to the Afghan Taliban, guaranteeing that their leader would be protected if he agreed to attend peace negotiations in the Afghan capital.
According to the Associated Press (AP), Karzai also issued a bold ultimatum to the United States and other foreign powers who have stationed some 65,000 troops in the country that he acknowledged could be controversial.
"If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices, remove me or leave if they disagree," Karzai said in an news conference in Kabul.
"If I am removed in the cause of peace for Afghanistan by force by them, than I will be very happy. If they disagree, they can leave. But we are not in that stage yet," Karzai said.
It is widely believed that Mr. Omar and other top Taliban leaders are currently living in the area around Quetta, Pakistan, although there have been no sightings of the man since the US-led invasion in 2001.
Violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest point since the 2001 invasion, which drove the Taliban from power, says The Washington Post. AP reports that insurgent attacks are up by 30 percent over this time last year.
While negotiating with the Taliban may have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago, the idea has gained new currency amid the country's deteriorating security situation, The Washington Post adds. Karzai says his main condition for talks is that the Taliban recognize Afghanistan's Constitution.
But the US does not share Karzai's willingness to open a dialogue with the Taliban, who have so far refused to renounce violence or condemn Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has close ties with the Taliban, who protected them inside Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
One day after Karzai made his offer to Omar, US officials subtly challenged it. Speaking in Washington, White House spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not imagine a situation in which the Taliban could be protected from multinational forces, reports McClatchy Newspapers.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack slapped down the idea Monday. "One can't imagine the circumstances where you have the senior leadership of the Taliban — that there would be any safe passage with respect to U.S. forces. Certainly, it's hard to imagine those circumstances standing here right now," McCormack said.
Some US military leaders say negotiating with the Taliban may not be a bad idea, though the time for that may not yet be right.
Speaking to Agence France-Presse, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said negotiations have an important role to play in counterinsurgency work, and can be used to stoke divisions within the Taliban between moderate and hard-line factions. But he added a cautionary note:
"At some point in time, we get to a point in these insurgencies where you peel off the reconcilables and I think you start having conversations with those who are reconcilable," Mullen said.
"At least from my perspective, we're not there yet," he said.
Mullen said the same approach was used successfully in Iraq and in counter-insurgency efforts elsewhere, saying that it was "very realistic" to pursue talks with insurgents in Afghanistan.
"It's happened in other insurgencies historically, and I think it will happen here, as well."
The Financial Times reports that the Afghan government has already launched a bid to peel moderates away from the Taliban. The government has announced plans to create a new organization under the powerful directorate of local governance that will identify fighters who could be persuaded away from the Taliban and provide them with training and government jobs.
But so far, Taliban leaders appear unmoved by Karzai's appeal for negotiations and unintimidated by pressure from American and multinational forces. Speaking by telephone to Reuters, Taliban deputy leader Mullah Brother rejected the offer and mocked Karzai as a "slave" of the United States.
"We are safe in Afghanistan and we have no need for Hamid Karzai's offer of safety," said Mullah Brother, deputy leader of the Taliban.
"We will continue jihad (holy war) against foreign troops and their Afghan slaves," he told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.
The group said it will not negotiate until troops leave Afghanistan, and has even threatened a strike on Paris, the first threat the group has issued against a Western target, McClatchy reports.
The major beneficiary of the dispute appears to be the Taliban, which said it wouldn't come to the negotiating table until all foreign troops left Afghanistan, as it vowed in a videotape to strike in Paris unless coalition member France withdraws its forces.