Secret exploratory peace talks between the United States and the Taliban leadership have broken down after details of the negotiations were leaked, Western diplomats have told The Daily Telegraph.
9:00PM BST 10 Aug 2011
The breakdown in the talks at such an early stage has led to recriminations and claims that the details of the meetings and the identity of the Taliban's chief negotiator were deliberately leaked by 'paranoid'Afghan government figures.
Absolute confidentiality had been a key condition for the meetings which were held in Germany and Qatar earlier this year between Tayeb Agha, Taliban leader Mullah Omar's former private secretary, and senior officials from the US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency. The meetings were chaired by Michael Steiner, Germany's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The talks were described as a preliminary exercise aimed at agreeing a series of confidence-building measures to persuade the Taliban that the United States and its allies are serious about a negotiated settlement, sources close to the talks told The Daily Telegraph.
They said Taliban leaders were extremely nervous about entering talks because of widespread scepticism among their own commanders who believed the Americans were only seeking dialogue to divide their movement and fears that any discussions would damage their own credibility.
But after only three sessions details of two meetings in Germany and one in Qatar – held in March and April - were leaked to the Washington Post and Der Spiegel news magazine which named Tayeb Agha as the key Taliban negotiator.
According to diplomatic sources and others close to the talks, Tayeb Agha has not been seen since and American officials have not been able to contact him through intermediaries in Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan, where he is believed to live.
"The talks were a big deal, the real thing. I hope people will learn the lesson on the importance of confidentiality in the early stages. People in the US are horrified about what has happened," said one source close to the talks.
Sources in Kabul confirmed the talks appeared to have been "blown out of the water" by the publicity.
After years of the Taliban rejecting Hamid Karzai's overtures, news of contact with a senior aide to Mullah Omar had kindled cautious hope in Kabul.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the Taliban's former envoy to the United Nations and now a member of Mr Karzai's High Peace Council, told the Daily Telegraph in June that the contacts were "helpful".
He said: "[Tayeb Agha] is still very close to Mullah Mohammad Omar, it's a good sign. Not only close to Mullah Omar, but also close to Pakistan."
American officials had understood the need for complete confidentiality but decided President Hamid Karzai's government had to be kept informed of developments.
Michael Semple, the former deputy European Union representative in Kabul and a leading expert on Taliban thinking, said the disclosure of the talks and the identification of Tayeb Agha was regarded as damaging by the insurgents.
"The Taliban have long claimed that they will drive the foreigners out by force before contemplating talks. They need a period of confidential contact to satisfy themselves that there is something serious on offer to warrant them taking the big step of acknowledging that negotiations have to start now and not after things have been settled on the battlefield," he said.
"When the fact that talks had taken place and the identity of the Taliban envoy were leaked the Taliban shifted into their version of damage control. The leadership put it about that the contacts were nothing out of the ordinary. They were just routine discussions about prisoner releases, which a movement at war has to undertake periodically.
"It is hardly surprising that the Taliban chose to downplay the significance of Tayyab Agha's mission. In terms of progress towards negotiations which might end the war, it has proved a case of one step forward and two steps back," he added.