KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan peace effort is floundering, fraught with mistrust and confusion among key players even though the hard-line Taliban militants show signs of softening and their reclusive, one-eyed leader made a surprise offer to share power in a post-war Afghanistan.
The U.S. and its allies hope the peace process, which began nearly two years ago, will gain traction before most international forces withdraw from the country in fewer than 23 months. But although the Taliban appear more ready to talk than ever before, peace talks remain elusive because of infighting among a rising number of interlocutors — all trying to get some kind of negotiations started.
Members of the Taliban are in contact with representatives from 30 to 40 different countries, according to senior U.S., Afghan and other officials The Associated Press interviewed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, the relationship among the key players — the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan — is marked by distrust that keeps tugging momentum away from the peace process.
Many of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive contacts with the Taliban.
Finding a path to the negotiating table will be a topic when Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Zardari hold a series of meetings beginning Monday with British Prime Minister David Cameron. The meetings in London come amid fresh tensions between Kabul and its western allies.
Karzai recently warned the West not to use peace talks as a lever against his government. As well, both Kabul and Washington are frustrated that Pakistan is not monitoring the whereabouts and activities of Taliban prisoners it released in recent months. Miffed by the criticism, Pakistan says it freed the prisoners at the request of the Afghan government and doesn't have the resources to keep tabs on them.
No one in either Pakistan or Afghanistan seems to know where the dozens of released prisoners have gone. Last week, the Taliban issued a statement by freed former Taliban Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi on behalf of all the prisoners — an indication that at least some might have rejoined the ranks of the insurgency.
"There were no preconditions to their release and we are getting criticism from our own people inside Afghanistan about that and it is valid criticism," said Ismail Qasemyar, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council.
The peace council, which Karzai set up to carry out peace negotiations, handed Pakistan the list of prisoners, including Turabi, that it wanted freed. They have also asked for the release of the Taliban's former second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, but Washington has urged Pakistan not to release him, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
For its part, the United States has tried to accelerate the peace process by working with Britain, Norway and Germany to reach out to the Taliban, said a senior Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations. Both France and Tokyo have hosted meetings that have been attended by Afghan officials, opposition leaders and the Taliban, although the Taliban insist their participation should not be misinterpreted as negotiations.
One senior U.S. official said the process is so nascent and egos so fragile that it's like negotiating a minefield. A European diplomat told the AP that there are so many backdoor talks going on that it's hard to keep track of who is talking to whom.
This week, Karzai said he wanted an end to all these talks. Speaking at a water management conference in the Afghan capital, Karzai expressed suspicion that the peace process was being hijacked by the West to strengthen his opponents and undermine his government.
Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told The AP in an interview on the sprawling palace grounds in Kabul that the president was frustrated by what he perceives are attempts by his political opponents and the West, including the United States, to use the peace process to lay the groundwork for a post-2014 Afghanistan led by those hand-picked by them.
This latest flap between Karzai and the West could halt or at least delay the official opening of a Taliban office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar. The office is intended to give the Taliban an address from which they can conduct peace talks. Faizi said Karzai supports the office "in principle," with some conditions.
"This office should be used only as an address for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban," Faizi said. "This office should not be used for any other purpose."
Faizi also said the president wants the Taliban to publicly announce that they will negotiate peace only with the Afghan High Peace Council. So far, the Taliban have resisted, although officials close to the president say privately that they appear to be softening their hard-line stance.
Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, seemed uncompromising when he spoke to The AP.
"There is no change in the policy of the Islamic Emirate of not talking to the Karzai government," he said "The Karzai regime is powerless and installed by others. Real parties to the conflict are those who have committed aggression."
But still the Taliban have shown signs of moderating their positions in recent months.
According to several Western officials, who are involved or knowledgeable about the process, the most telling sign of flexibility came in a statement issued late last year by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. In the statement marking the Islamic holy holiday of Eid al-Adha, Omar for the first time offered to share power. He also said he had no interest in starting a civil war.
"As to the future political destiny of the country, I would like to repeat that we are neither thinking of monopolizing power nor intend to spark off domestic war," he said.
While still firm on his demand for Sharia or Islamic law, in Afghanistan, the Taliban leader, who rarely speaks and has a $10 million bounty on his head, did seem to take a few steps back from the harsh and regressive edicts and interpretations of Islamic law that characterized the Taliban's five-year rule. Many of those edicts were directed at women, denying them education and the right to work. He also seemed to extend an olive branch to Afghanistan's other ethnic groups.
"We will guarantee rights of both male and female of the country, build economic structures and strengthen social foundations and facilities of education for all people of the country," he said.
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But Omar's flexibility only went so far. He still insisted on an Islamic education system. While the West has been pressing for secular education, many of Afghanistan's current leaders support a Quran-based education system.
A senior member of the High Peace Council, who met with Taliban on the sidelines of the two conferences in France and Tokyo, said they also vowed to make child marriages illegal and outlaw a common practice among ethnic Pashtuns to use their daughters as barter to settle disputes.
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon