U.S. Won't Talk to Taliban Until Al Qaeda Ties Cut

The United States is monitoring reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government but will not participate unless the insurgents renounce Al Qaeda, a top U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.

The comments by Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, came the same day that a Maldives government spokesman said delegations representing the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks late last month in the island nation.

Spokesman Mohamed Zuhair said the delegations held three days of face-to-face talks to forge a peaceful solution to the eight-year-old Afghan conflict. The talks did not involve a third party, and the Maldives government was not directly involved in organizing them, Zuhair said.

Holbrooke told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital that there have been lots of "indirect contacts" made with the Taliban, but he dismissed the impression that there was a "peace negotiation going on somewhere in the shadows."

"We are watching this. We are talking to people," Holbrooke said.

But he stressed: "The United States is not in direct contact with Taliban leadership. Why not? Because they aren't renouncing Al Qaeda. We're not going to talk to people who are affiliated with Al Qaeda."

He acknowledged that reconciliation is a key topic of conversation within the U.S. government, but that the Obama administration's core goal in Afghanistan was to destroy and dismantle Al Qaeda. If the Taliban renounce ties with the terrorist group, that would change the U.S. position.

"We may hate their social programs, and we may hate their past, but that changes the situation," he said about the Taliban's control of Afghanistan before it was toppled in 2001. "There is no indication that they're ready to do that, but obviously, if they make an announcement to that effect, it would have a material effect on everybody's attitudes."

While Holbrooke did not mention the gathering in Maldives, he said a recent meeting that Kai Eide, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, had with Taliban representatives was an example of "indirect contacts" that have been made with the insurgents.

Holbrooke said Eide was not working on behalf of the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in late January that Eide wanted to "get his own conclusion about the mindset" of some members of the Taliban. The U.N. has not confirmed the meeting, and the Taliban has denied that their representatives met with a U.N. official.

Among those representing the Taliban at the meeting in Maldives was the son of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious warlord and former Afghan prime minister, whose rebel group fights daily battles with U.S. and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Officials involved in the negotiating process said they planned to set up working groups in Kabul, Pakistan and Dubai to pursue discussions. The Pakistan group would make contacts with Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami group and others based in Pakistan. The Dubai group would liaise with representatives of the international community.