Afghan leader wants US backing for wider outreach to Taliban, isn't likely to get it now

WASHINGTON (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai is asking for something he isn't likely to get during a bells-and-whistles state visit that began Monday: U.S. backing for faster negotiations with Taliban leaders who were in power during the Sept. 11 attacks but whose support for a peace deal is considered essential to ending the war.

The U.S. hopes the visit will bolster ties with Karzai, a leader the Obama administration once held at arm's length. After winning re-election in a tainted vote last year, Karzai seems destined to preside over Afghanistan's political reconciliation and the gradual withdrawal of the U.S.-led forces now holding the insurgents at bay.

Karzai has said overtures to the Taliban are crucial, but stand little chance of success without the support of the U.S. and its international partners. Previous attempts to negotiate with insurgents, he says, were not fruitful because "sections of the international community undermined — not backed — our efforts."

It's not clear how far apart the U.S. and Afghan positions remain, but the Obama administration has shown no sign that it is ready to make peace with top Taliban leadership. The go-slow approach reflects differences of opinion within the White House and military, and queasiness about any accommodation with the Taliban figured who harbored al-Qaida leaders before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Karzai's four-day visit includes a review of President Barack Obama's decision to send thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan in December, ahead of a White House assessment of U.S. strategy planned for the end of this year.

Karzai will also use highly-publicized meetings with Obama and other officials to try to show Americans that his country is not a lost cause.

Pentagon leaders say they are cautiously optimistic about the war as American forces spread across southern Afghanistan, but a Pentagon report to Congress this month said there were no districts where the counterinsurgency campaign is an unqualified success. The war remains a stalemate in key areas, and U.S. military officials do not dispute the Taliban's boast that 2009 was its most successful year.

The visit comes a few weeks before what Karzai calls a "peace jirga" intended to prepare the ground for reconciliation talks. The White House calls it a "consultative" meeting that won't include the most hard-core insurgents.

The Obama administration says it wants Afghanistan to reach its own political compromises, but has been vague about how high up the Taliban leadership chain it should go.

Karzai or his intermediaries have already engaged in some form of talks with ranking Taliban representatives, but the U.S. has not given its blessing for discussions with senior leaders of three main Afghan insurgent groups — Taliban chief Mullah Omar; Jalaluddin Haqqani, who runs an al-Qaida-linked organization; and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the boss of the powerful Hezb-e-Islami.

"Historically, I think the most important thing is that we first get an Afghan solution, crafted by Afghans, and, second, that it be inclusive and it feel fair to everyone," the overall U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told reporters Monday.

The United States has set a high bar for bringing militants into the fold. They must renounce violence, sever ties to al-Qaida and "respect" the Afghan constitution, although there are varying interpretations of what the latter means.

"The topic of reintegration, reconciliation, is one that will be high on this week's agenda," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry told reporters Monday. "I think there's a clarity right now between our two governments about what the common principle should be."

As recently as March, Karzai suggested there was no such clarity. He said the U.S. was reluctant to talk to top-ranking Taliban while the British were not. "Our allies are not always talking the same language," he said then.

The Karzai government is readying a new program offering cash and other inducements to encourage the defection of low- and midlevel Taliban fighters.

Afghan officials insist that reintegration of low-level fighters and reconciliation of the Taliban's top echelon need to be conducted in tandem.

At a White House news conference, Eikenberry acknowledged that relations with Karzai have been shaky at times. In a secret appraisal last year, Eikenberry had called Karzai erratic and not up to the job as a partner for the U.S. military buildup then in the planning stages.

Eikenberry sidestepped a question about whether his concerns about Karzai as a leader had been fully allayed.

"He's the elected president of Afghanistan," Eikenberry said. "Of course I highly respect President Karzai."

He said that after this week's meetings, "I think we're going to emerge with even better alignment."