U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested last week that the United States could wrap up combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2013, well before the longstanding 2014 deadline when full control is to be ceded to Kabul. Troops would remain in Afghanistan until 2014, as agreed upon at the 2010 Lisbon Summit, and would be engaged in two roles until at least 2014 and perhaps even later. One role would be continuing the training of Afghan security forces. The other would involve special operations troops carrying out capture or kill operations against high-value targets.
Along with this announcement, the White House gave The New York Times some details on negotiations that have been under way with the Taliban. According to the Times, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the senior-most leader of the Afghan Taliban, last summer made overtures to the White House offering negotiations. An intermediary claiming to speak for Mullah Omar delivered the proposal, an unsigned document purportedly from Mullah Omar that could not be established as authentic. The letter demanded the release of some Taliban prisoners before any talks. In spite of the ambiguities, which included a recent public denial by the Taliban that the offer came from Mullah Omar, U.S. officials, obviously acting on other intelligence, regarded the proposal as both authentic and representative of the views of the Taliban leadership and, in all likelihood, those of Mullah Omar, too.
The idea of negotiating with the Taliban is not new. Talks, as distinct from negotiations, in which specific terms are hammered out, have gone on for some time now. Several previous attempts have ended in failure, including one instance when the supposed representative proved to be a fraud. However, according to the Times report, the negotiations took on a degree of specificity last summer. They began in November 2010, initiated by a man named Tayyab Agha, who claimed to speak for Mullah Omar. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama regards authenticating the present offer as unimportant and the intermediary as having authority; the question on the table is the release of Taliban captives as a token of American seriousness.