The Afghan government hopes to hold talks with Taliban representatives in Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks, according to a senior Afghan official, in a move that threatens to cloud already delicate and fragile steps to negotiate an end to the United States' longest war.
The senior official, speaking anonymously as he was discussing sensitive diplomatic issues, said there were plans for a meeting between insurgents and Afghan officials in Saudi Arabia. Yet, he added, the plans were at such an early stage that it was not clear who -- including American officials -- would attend or when any talks would be held.
The U.S. has acknowledged that it has held discussions about opening a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, as well as the possibility of transferring some Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay as part of American support for Afghan reconciliation efforts.
"The principle is that although there is now an agreement -- almost -- to set up an office in Doha, that doesn't necessarily mean that all conversations will take place in Doha," the official said. "We will talk to the same or different individuals (from the insurgency) in a different location. Obviously, Saudi Arabia has been supportive of the recent agenda and has hosted talks in the past. It is likely that we are heading there in the future for meetings."
He said the dates and participants were still being worked out and insisted that any Saudi discussions would feed into the Qatar process. This is "absolutely not in opposition to the Qatar process," he added, calling the talks in that Gulf state "a very substantive step forward."
Importantly, while the Afghan official was unable to say whether the Americans would attend any talks held in Saudi Arabia, he insisted, "The U.S. is supportive of the idea. It is far too early to discuss any specifics about this."
The creation of a parallel process to the Qatar talks risks frustrating American efforts to bring the Taliban and Afghan officials together. The current "talks about talks" in Doha are the product of months of U.S. efforts to reach out to the insurgency, which came to sudden fruition last month when the Taliban announced that they would support opening an office in their name in Qatar.
Officials in President Hamid Karzai's government privately voiced frustration at being excluded from the early stages of this process. They agreed to support it last week, but the announcement of a separate drive in Saudi Arabia will be interpreted by many as an Afghan reminder that they wish to exert overriding influence over any peace process. The official's remarks that they might talk to different insurgents in Saudi Arabia could further create distance between this process and that in Qatar, although the official insisted that was not the intention.
The official said the Qatar process could move forward once the Qataris sent a delegation to Kabul to discuss the next steps, adding that he hoped that would be soon. He said that as of now, there were no Afghan government officials in Qatar to support any discussions.
"To fully assume ownership of the Qatar process is important for us," the official added. "We will work in the weeks ahead" to do that.
He said the Americans needed a clear statement from the insurgents, distancing themselves from terrorism, for their role in the Qatar process to move forward and for an office to be established.
He said: "We know and are aware the are Taliban representatives in Doha. There are channels in fact, and we are aware of the presence. What's not yet established is the office."
An American observer with an intimate knowledge of the discussions said, "What (Karzai) is basically saying is that he is not on board with the Qatar process."
The observer said he did not think American officials had been made aware of the Saudi Arabian process before its announcement and expressed doubts as to how thought-out and organized any Saudi meeting was.
"This doesn't seem really serious. It's more a symptom of Karzai protesting the progress that's been made in Qatar. We don't know if this is real or if the Saudis are on board. It's yet another statement that comes out of Kabul that throws a monkey wrench into the process."
He added that Karzai had blown "hot and cold" over reconciling with the Taliban. "It is frustrating because often the assumption was that it would be difficult to get the Taliban to focus on talks, but actually it's difficult to get Karzai to."