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Are the Taliban really ready for peace talks in Afghanistan?

KABUL, Afghanistan  — The Taliban may be ready to sit down with the Afghan government for official peace talks, said Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s new High Peace Council and a former president, amid recent reports of unofficial preliminary contact with Taliban members.

Rabbani’s announcement came on Thursday, just one week after the council held its inaugural meeting and the government of President Hamid Karzai claimed to be in secret peace talks with the Taliban. The Taliban, however, has denied that they are in official talks with the government. Their response underscores the difficulties the government will face negotiating with an insurgency composed of a variety of factions without central leadership.

Despite the Afghan government’s apparent optimism, there are concerns about who exactly the government is talking to within the Taliban and if it is communicating with other antigovernment insurgent groups that operate within Afghanistan.

Still the government sees this as a prime opportunity to begin negotiations with the Taliban, which has opposed it since they were removed from power in 2001.

“We see some sort of willingness within the Taliban ranks to talk to the government of Afghanistan and the High Peace Council, but it’s still too early to announce any kind of results from these unofficial contacts,” says Baryalai Helali, spokesman for the peace program of the Afghan government. “These are much more personal contacts and there have not been any kind of official talks with the Taliban leadership.”

According to Mr. Helali, members of the council have been in communication with Taliban officials at all levels of the organization.

On Thursday, however the Taliban issued a statement on their official website describing remarks that members of their organization had been in touch with the government as “futile claims and baseless propaganda.”

The organization said that the “minuscule numbers of former [Taliban] officials” who may be in touch with the government do not represent the organization, nor do they have permission to speak on its behalf.

Helali says he is uncertain why the Taliban is denying the contacts.

Although some elements of the Taliban are most likely in talks with the Afghan government, there is no evidence to suggest that all of the different militant factions here have united to negotiate as a common front, says Arturo Munoz, a senior political scientist who specializes in Afghanistan for the Rand Corporation.

“Karzai has a chance of making a peace deal with some [elements of the] Taliban that will hopefully diminish violence, but it will not end it. I foresee some factions of the Taliban just not agreeing with it and continuing terrorist attacks,” says Mr. Munoz.

Rather than coming to the table now, many insurgents may see a greater benefit in waiting for the eventual drawdown and withdrawal of foreign forces, which could enable them to move into powerful positions.

No one has announced a date for when official talks between the Taliban and the government could begin. However, with NATO forces scheduled to start their gradual drawdown in July 2011, it is possible that both parties will come to the table within the next few months, says Mariam Safi, head researcher for the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul.

There is cause for optimism, says Ms. Safi, describing the creation of the Peace Council as a significant step for Afghanistan. She’s careful to add, however, that with all the unpredictable elements surrounding the potential talks, “we cannot say for sure right now if this will produce any results.”

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