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Peace Deal Process With Taliban Stalls


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We're learning more about the American staff sergeant accused of killing 16 villagers in Afghanistan. Last night, his lawyer said the soldier did not want to go to Afghanistan, his fourth deployment for the Army. He had been wounded twice and he didn't think he was healthy enough to deploy. The attorney didn't release the soldier's name, but did say he was the father of two young children and added that the soldier's family was totally shocked by the allegations against him.

Army criminal investigators are looking at the possibility that the soldier was drinking alcohol at his combat outpost before the shooting. His lawyer disputed the claim that he might be drunk.

In the wake of the massacre, the Taliban has announced that it is suspending peace talks. And in a meeting with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded the U.S. pull troops out of rural areas a year earlier than previously proposed. These setbacks come at an already difficult time for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, as it attempts to implement a smooth exit strategy.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For more than a year, the Obama administration has been trying to midwife a negotiating process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. There have been baby-steps, talks about talks, a discussion about releasing five Taliban fighters from Guantanamo, and even a Taliban office set up in Qatar.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says the U.S. still wants to pursue this path, despite the Taliban's decision to suspend the dialogue.

VICTORIA NULAND: The process that we have been wiling to support is one where we facilitate, we support a dialogue, Afghans-to-Afghans. That's going to take two to tango. They're going to have to decide what they want to do in this regard.

KELEMEN: The Taliban's statement was scathing, accusing the Americans of turning their backs on the promises they made regarding a prisoner exchange, and of wasting time. Nuland says the Obama administration is still working through that issue and has to consult Congress.

NULAND: We haven't made any decisions one way or the other. I'm not going to get into the details of what we are discussing. But if they push back from any table, it's hard to imagine that one could make the kind of progress that they're looking for.

KELEMEN: Just what they are looking for is a hotly-debated question in Washington. Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says Taliban leaders don't have any incentive to negotiate the kind of peace deal the U.S. wants.,

MAX BOOT: I don't think there is such pressure on the Taliban that they actually see a peace deal as being in their interest. Unless the kind of peace deal they strike would be along the lines of the one that North Vietnam struck with the United States in the Paris Peace Accords, where they basically provide a fig leaf to allow a faster pullout by American forces, which then allows them to restart their offensive without interference from us.

KELEMEN: In a conference call with reporters, yesterday, Boot argued that the talk in Washington about the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal makes it more difficult to reach a negotiated peace.

BOOT: The odds of that are very small and getting smaller as we signal that our primary imperative is to leave.

KELEMEN: His colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, Stephen Biddle, sees things differently. Biddle says that the U.S. will continue to support Afghan security forces for at least a couple of years, after international troops end their combat mission.

DR. STEPHEN BIDDLE: A reasonable Taliban expectation is that this war runs at least until 2016-ish. At that point, maybe what they get is the ability to topple the government and that will lead to civil war.

KELEMEN: One that could be messy, with no guarantee of an easy Taliban takeover. So he says a negotiated settlement is in the Taliban's interest, despite the suspension of talks.

BIDDLE: There's a tendency, in the U.S. debate, to say the only way we can negotiate with the Taliban is if we can show them that we are going to win, and that if the Taliban think that, either we are going to lose or they can wait us out, there will be no negotiated settlement. I think that's overstated.

KELEMEN: While the U.S. is trying to keep up the pressure on the Taliban on the battlefield, Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he wants U.S. troops out of rural areas next year. Experts say that could complicate efforts to partner and train Afghan security forces - another key part of the U.S. exit strategy

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.