ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After 10 years of bloody battle in Afghanistan, the United States is trolling for Taliban officials to talk peace with before the July drawdown of American troops.
Washington's special envoy, Marc Grossman, has a one-point agenda: to reconcile Afghanistan's warring factions, say Western diplomats in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But as Washington seeks negotiating partners, it has little knowledge of who among the Taliban has the clout to make talks worthwhile.
Grossman, therefore, is trying for access to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader, according to Imtiaz Gul, head of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.
In a meeting earlier this month in Islamabad, Gul said Grossman told him that he was looking for "persons or groups who can provide us access to Mullah Omar, who can demonstrate their ability to approach Mullah Omar and get him on board, who can get through to Mullah Omar to open talks."
Finding a genuine interlocutor is a slippery business.
Heavily sanctioned and largely ostracized during their rule, many members of the Taliban leadership are not known to U.S. officials.
For example, late last year a Quetta, Pakistan, shopkeeper posed as the Taliban's former aviation minister, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, and met twice with Western officials before they realized they had been tricked.
The Associated Press has also learned that the United States held a series of meetings with more than one Taliban member. There also has been contact with representatives of Hezb-e-Islami, a group led by U.S.-declared terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network, considered by NATO and the U.S. to be their deadliest enemy in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month the German weekly Der Speigel reported that Germany had helped U.S. officials contact Mullah Omar's personal secretary, Tayyab Aga. He was the last public voice of the Taliban before fighters fled southern Kandahar province in December 2001, shortly after U.S.-led invasion. While Germany has been involved, opening of contact with Aga was an American initiative, a western diplomat in the region told The AP.
The last time Aga was seen in public was Nov. 21, 2001 when he conducted a final Taliban press conference in Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar Province. The Taliban fled Kandahar on Dec. 7, 2001 allowing Hamid Karzai to be named president and the U.S. led coalition to announce that the Taliban had been routed countrywide.
At that time, Aga was 25 and Omar's personal secretary. A relative newcomer to the Taliban, Aga was not a member of the Taliban inner circle when it ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, nor did he have battlefield experience.
But he spoke English well and was a prominent face in the last years of the Taliban's rule, acting as Omar's spokesman.
Since 2001 his name has not emerged as a member of the so-called Quetta shura, named for Pakistan's southeastern city where many of the Taliban are said to live or transit with relative ease.
It's not clear whether Aga still has links to Omar or whether Omar has okayed the U.S. contacts. Taliban have flatly denied anyone is talking to the U.S. or to the Afghan government. Senior Pakistani security officials who spoke on condition they not be identified, said Omar is rigid in his refusal to negotiate.
Aga is just one of several insurgents the U.S. reportedly has approached either directly or indirectly to test their willingness to talk peace, according to western diplomats in the region. Others include former Taliban information minister Qatradullah Jamal. Lines also are out to Ibrahim Haqqani, a brother of group leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, as well as Hekmatyar's representatives, they say. No one is calling the meetings negotiations, rather they are most often referred to as exploratory contacts.
Hekmatyar, who has an unsavory reputation, hid Osama bin Laden for at least 10 months after the al-Qaida leader fled the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan in November 2001, according to testimony from prisoners at the U.S. military lockup at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During the Taliban rule Hekmatyar lived in exile in Iran. His fighters have deep animosity for the Taliban, further complicating U.S. attempts at construct a political settlement among the warring factions.
According to Afghan officials Hekmatyar's warriors are fighting the Taliban in eastern Nangarhar province. Former Taliban have also told AP that Omar routinely told followers he would never talk to Hekmatyar, calling him duplicitous and untrustworthy.
Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun like most Taliban, also battled ferociously against the so-called Northern Alliance – mostly of ethnic minorities and Washington's allies in Kabul. It was together with the Northern Alliance that the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001. Yet the Northern Alliance also has a checkered past. When they last ruled Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996, until being thrown out by the Taliban, their relentless fighting destroyed giant swaths of Kabul and left 50,000 people, mostly civilians dead.
Pakistan, which remains angry about the May 2 raid into the country by U.S. Navy SEALS that killed Osama bin Laden, only complicates Washington efforts.
Pakistan's historical links to the Taliban, as well as to both the Haqqanis and Hekmatyar makes its cooperation crucial to U.S. efforts to find a political exit from Afghanistan, officials say. However it also makes Pakistan deeply suspect by the Northern Alliance. Those U.S. allies accuse Pakistan of supporting the Taliban, sending them across the border to carry out suicide bombings that destabilize Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's former intelligence chief-turned-politician Amrullah Saleh has lumped Pakistan in with the Taliban as enemies of Afghanistan. He has previously accusing Islamabad of trying to return the Taliban to power as a proxy.
He said the Afghan government has not set out requirements for prospective talks with the Taliban.
"All the time the government calls the enemy `brothers' while the enemy is insulting them, conducting suicide attacks, placing roadside bombs and killing innocent people," Saleh said.
Nader Nadery of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission, said war fatigue in the United States and NATO was increasing pressure for talks that, he said, "will bring a short term end to violence but lead to more fighting when the (U.S. and NATO) forces leave."
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report
Kathy Gannon can be reached at http://twitter.com/kathygannon