* Crucial meeting set for Friday
* Hopes resurrected for negotiated end to decades of war
* Peace matters most delicate item on a long agenda
By Warren Strobel and Mehreen Zahra-Malik
WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD, Jan 8 (Reuters) - President Barack
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will discuss matters of
war, including future U.S. troop levels and Afghanistan's army,
when they meet on Friday, but matters of peace may be the most
delicate item on their long agenda.
After nearly 10 months in limbo, tentative reconciliation
efforts involving Taliban insurgents, the Karzai government and
other major Afghan factions have shown new signs of life,
resurrecting tantalizing hopes for a negotiated end to decades
Pakistan, which U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused
of backing the insurgents and meddling in Afghanistan, has
recently signaled an apparent policy shift toward promoting its
neighbor's stability as most U.S. combat troops prepare to
depart, top Pakistani and Afghan officials said.
In another potentially significant development, Taliban
representatives met outside Paris last month with members of the
Afghan High Peace Council - although not directly with members
of the Karzai government, which they have long shunned.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the
developments are promising - but that major challenges remain to
opening negotiations, let alone reaching an agreement on the
war-ravaged country's political future.
Hopes for Afghan peace talks have been raised before, only
to be dashed. Last March, the Taliban suspended months of quiet
discussions with Washington aimed at getting the insurgents and
the Karzai government to the peace table.
Obama is expected to press the Afghan president to bless the
formal opening of a Taliban political office in the Gulf state
of Qatar as a way to jump-start inter-Afghan talks.
Karzai has been lukewarm to the idea, apparently fearing his
government would be sidelined in any negotiations.
TRIP AT A TURNING POINT
Karzai's meeting with Obama, at the end of a three-day visit
to Washington, is shaping up to be one of the most critical
encounters between the two leaders, as the White House weighs
how rapidly to remove most of the roughly 66,000 U.S. troops in
Afghanistan and how large a residual force to leave after 2014.
Obama, about to begin his second term in office, appears
determined to wrap up U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan.
On Monday, he announced as his nominee for Pentagon chief
former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who appears likely to favor
a sizeable U.S. troop drawdown.
Other issues on the agenda have plenty of potential for
causing friction: the future size and focus of the Afghan
military; a festering dispute over control of the country's
largest detention center; and the future of international aid
Karzai's trip "is one of the most important ones because the
discussions we are going to have with our counterparts will
define the relations between (the) United States and
Afghanistan," Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul told the
lower house of parliament this month.
No final announcement on post-2014 U.S. troop levels is
expected during Karzai's visit, and the issue is further
complicated by Washington's insistence on legal immunity for
American troops that remain.
General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in
Afghanistan, recommended keeping between roughly 6,000 and
15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, but the White
House is considering possibly leaving as few as 3,000 troops.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said
the White House had asked for options to be developed for
keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country.
PAST PEACE HOPES DASHED
Last year, the Obama administration hoped to kick-start
peace talks with a deal that would have seen Washington transfer
five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison. In return,
the Taliban would renounce international terrorism and state a
willingness to enter talks with Karzai's representatives.
That deal never came off, and the question now is whether
it, or an alternative peace process, can get under way as the
U.S. military presence rapidly winds down.
Looking at developments in the last few months, "you could
see that there are things happening," said one U.S. official,
who was not authorized to speak for the record.
At the end of 2012, Pakistan released four Afghan Taliban
prisoners who were close to the movement's reclusive leader,
Mullah Mohammed Omar. It appeared to be a step toward meeting
Afghanistan's long-standing insistence that Islamabad free those
who could help promote reconciliation. A senior Afghan official
welcomed the release.
A member of Pakistan's parliament closely involved in Afghan
policy-making said there are signs of a shift in the thinking of
Pakistan's powerful military. Some in the military, which has
long regarded Afghanistan as a battleground in its existential
conflict with rival India, are now saying that the graver threat
comes from Pakistan's own militants.
"Yes, there is skepticism. The hawks are there. But the fact
is that previously there were absolutely no voices in the army
with this kind of positive thinking," the parliamentarian said.
"Pakistan has also realized that there won't be a complete
withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan," the lawmaker said.
"The security establishment realizes it has to compromise
somewhere. Hence the Taliban releases. ... Hence the statements
from even the most skeptical Afghan officials that there is a
change in Pakistani thinking."
Ghairat Baheer, who represented the Hezb-e-Islami faction at
last month's peace talks in the Paris suburb of Chantilly,
rejected a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, but
praised the Pakistan prisoner release as a sign of its good
WAITING FOR THE TALIBAN
After more than a year of frustration, Obama administration
officials are skeptical about luring the Taliban to peace talks,
citing what appears to be a deep fissure within the movement
between moderates who favor entering the political process and
hard-liners committed to ousting both NATO troops and Karzai.
The Taliban's lead negotiator, Tayeb Agha, whom the Obama
administration regards as a reliable interlocutor, offered to
resign last month in apparent frustration, the Daily Beast
Taliban envoys have yet to meet officially with Karzai's
government, and the insurgents demand a rewriting of the Afghan
"I don't think anyone knows where (reconciliation) stands.
And I mean that because there are a lot of reconciliation talks
and a lot of games that are being played in a lot of places,"
said Fred Kagan, a military analyst at the conservative American
"The likelihood of getting an acceptable deal that actually
secures our interests is vanishingly small," he said. "But the
probability that you could get the deal and have it implemented
in time to make this drawdown timeline make sense is nonsense."