Secret U.S.-Taliban talks were closing on deal to free kidnapped army sergeant before being scuppered by Karzai aides

  • The release of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay was also discussed
  • Officials hoped to snare Mullah Mohammed Omar, linchpin of the Taliban
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is believed to have scuppered talks held between U.S. and Taliban officials

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is believed to have scuppered talks held between U.S. and Taliban officials

Secret talks between representatives of the United States and the Taliban were closing in on a deal to free a kidnapped army sergeant, but were scuppered when Hamid Karzai's aides leaked information about them.

Both U.S. and Afghan officials confirmed that the 54-year-old Afghan president kiboshed potential horse-trading with the Taliban, as he feared being out of the loop.

Though the discussions, held in Germany and Qatar, were only at a preliminary stage, a trade which would see Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, captured two years ago, was mooted.

In return, the talks centred on the release of a number of Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, as well as the Bagram airbase.

But before any deals could be firmed up, Mr Karzai's aided leaked knowledge of the talks to the press, and all hope of striking a clandestine agreement were gone.

The Afghan president felt as though he was being undercut, according to U.S. officials close to the deals.

According to an unnamed senior Western diplomat in the region a childhood friend of his, Tayyab Aga, was the Taliban negotiator.

Since the secret talks were discovered, Mr Aga has fled and gone in to hiding, for fear of his life, but to the chagrin of the negotiators who have been left to rue Mr Karzai's reported intervention.

The U.S. negotiators asked Mr Aga what could be done to gain Bergdahl's release. The discussion did not get into specifics but it is understood Mr Aga suggested - by way of a trade - the release of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and at Bagram airbase.

Collapse of the direct talks between Mr Aga and U.S. officials probably spoiled the best chance yet at reaching Mullah Mohammed Omar, considered the linchpin to ending the Taliban fight against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

The U.S. officials were trying to negotiate the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured two years ago
Tayyab Aga, shown here in 2001, was thought to be representing the Taliban in the negotiations but has now fled to Europe

The U.S. officials were trying to negotiate the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured two years ago (left) and Tayyab Aga, shown here in 2001 (right), was thought to be representing the Taliban in the negotiations but has now fled to Europe

Perhaps most importantly they offered the tantalising prospect of a brokered agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban - one that would allow the larger reconciliation of the Taliban into Afghanistan political life to move forward.

The United States has not committed to any such deal, but the Taliban wants security assurances from Washington.

In a series of interviews with diplomats, current and former Taliban, Afghan government officials and a close childhood friend of Mr Aga, the information suggests that the man who was brokering the deals for the Taliban is now hiding in Europe, and is afraid to return to Pakistan fearing reprisals.

The United States, for example, has had no direct contact with him for months. A senior U.S. official acknowledged that the talks imploded because of the leak and that Mr Aga, while alive, had disappeared.

Officials had been hoping that the negotiations would lead them to the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar

Officials had been hoping that the negotiations would lead them to the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar

While the U.S. will continue to pursue talks, the trust of such meetings have been affected.

The U.S. acknowledged the meetings after Mr Karzai, who apparently fears being sidelined by U.S.-Taliban talks, confirmed published accounts about them in June, but has never publicly detailed the content, format or participants.

The first was held in late 2010 followed by at least two other meetings in early spring of this year, and the sessions were held in Germany and Qatar, the unnamed official said.

The childhood friend of Mr Aga's said the negotiator had fled to Germany and a diplomat in the region said he exited to a European country after his contacts with the United States were revealed.

The talks were deliberately revealed by someone in the presidential palace, where Mr Karzai's office is located, said a Western and an Afghan official.

The reason was Mr Karzai's animosity toward the U.S. and fear that any agreement Washington brokered would undermine his authority, they said.

Pakistan had also been kept in the dark about the talks and an Afghan official with contacts with the Taliban said the insurgents decided not to tell Pakistan about the meetings with the United States.

At the time of the leak, Washington had already offered small concessions as 'confidence-building measures', a former senior U.S. official said.

They were aimed at developing a rapport and moving talks forward, said a current U.S. official on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The concessions included treating the Taliban and al-Qaeda differently under international sanctions.

The Taliban had argued that while al-Qaeda is focused on worldwide jihad against the West, Taliban militants have focused on Afghanistan and have shown little interest in attacking targets abroad.

Other goodwill gestures that were not made public included Mr Aga's safe passage to Germany, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. also offered assurances that it would not block the Taliban from opening an office in a third country, the official said.

Mr Aga had been hoping for the release of some Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba

Mr Aga had been hoping for the release of some Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba

A number of other Afghans are being held at the Bargram airbase, near Kabul in Afghanistan

A number of other Afghans are being held at the Bargram airbase, near Kabul in Afghanistan

Mr Aga slowly established his trust and reputation with the U.S. officials, who had initial doubts both about his identity and his level of contact and influence with Omar.

He sought the freedom of Taliban fighters in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay and Bagram airbase, north of the Afghan capital where an estimated 600 Afghans are being held.

Still at Guantanamo Bay is former Taliban Defense Ministry Chief of Staff Mullah Mohammed Fazil, Taliban intelligence official Abdul Haq Wasiq and former Herat governor Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa.

Afghanistan's High Peace Council tasked by Mr Karzai with finding a negotiated settlement with insurgents has requested Khairkhwa's release.

A former U.S. official familiar with the talks said the loss of the Mr Aga contact dismayed and angered the U.S. side, and further eroded thin trust in Mr Karzai.

There is a difference of opinion among U.S. diplomats, military officials and others about how directly Mr Karzai should be blamed, but several officials agreed that the leak was an attempt to torpedo a diplomatic channel that he, and his inner circle, worried would sideline and undercut the Afghan leader.

As the Afghan war rolls into its tenth year and Washington plans to withdraw its combat forces by the end of 2014, a negotiated settlement between Mr Karzai's government and the Taliban has become a target for the United States.

An unnamed member of the High Peace Council said that the leaking of the talks reveals the level of mistrust and the lack of coordination among the key players in any eventual peace deal.

Senator John Kerry has held talks recently, which have been behind closed doors

Senator John Kerry has held talks recently, which have been behind closed doors

He said all the key players - the United States, Afghan government, Afghan National Security Council and the High Peace Council - are holding separate and secret talks with their own contacts within the insurgency.

The flurry of meetings the United States is holding with the various factions in the Afghan conflict has also extended to Pakistan, where the most powerful insurgents have found safe havens.

A month ago, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Senator John Kerry, and Pakistan's Army chief of staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani met for a marathon eight hours in a Gulf country.

Peace negotiations with Afghanistan's insurgents featured prominently, and one U.S. official said Mr Kayani made a pitch during his meeting with Mr Kerry that Pakistan take on a far larger role in Afghanistan peacemaking.

The United States considers Pakistan an essential part of an eventual deal, but neither the U.S. nor Pakistan trusts the other's motives in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, an unexpected consequence of attempts to find peace with the Taliban has been the rearming of the so-called Northern Alliance, that represents Afghanistan's ethnic minorities and who were partnered with the coalition at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban regime.

For the warlords that make up the Northern Alliance, Martine van Bijlert, co-director and co-founder of the Afghan Analyst Network in the capital, Kabul, talk of peace threatens their survival.

Warlords-cum-government ministers and vice presidents are watching attempts at finding a peaceful end to the war with trepidation, each wondering, according to van Bijlert: 'What if it unravels, who is going to come after me, Will I be the weakest in the room?'

'They are feeling very vulnerable,' he added.

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