SINGAPORE - The United States has stepped up direct talks with the Afghan Taliban for a political settlement of the 10-year-old war, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, a move that analysts said earlier was easier following the death of Osama bin Laden.
A U.S. representative attended at least three meetings in Qatar and Germany, including one "eight or nine days ago" with a Taliban official considered close to the group's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the report said, citing an Afghan official.
It said that Washington was hoping to make progress in these talks before July, when President Barack Obama announces the first troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, part of a process of handing over responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014.
The report about the talks comes more than two weeks after the death of bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan, which analysts said helped clear the path for a political settlement in Afghanistan by making it easier for the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda.
The Taliban sheltered bin Laden in Afghanistan for years, until U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled them in 2001, unleashing a war between U.S.-led NATO forces and the Islamist group.
But with insurgent violence in Afghanistan at its highest in years and falling domestic support for the war, Western nations, including the United States, have come to back Afghan President Hamid Karzai's efforts to seek reconciliation with the Taliban.
The Washington Post said the talks with the Taliban had taken place through non-government intermediaries and Arab and European governments. The Taliban, it said, had insisted on direct negotiations with the Americans and proposed opening a formal office, with Qatar as a possible venue.
The discussions were still preliminary. It said the Taliban had transmitted a longstanding list of demands, including the release of up to 20 fighters detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It also wanted withdrawal of all foreign troops and a guarantee of a substantive Taliban role in government.
The U.S. and Afghan governments want the Taliban to end all violence and to observe the Afghan constitution, including respect for women's and minority rights and the rule of law.
The report said the discussions were being conducted with the part of the Taliban that answered to Mullah Omar or had influence in his Pakistan-based Quetta shura.
It quoted officials as saying that no role had been played by the Haqqani network, a group of Afghan fighters based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region seen by the Obama administration as particularly brutal and irreconcilable.
The Haqqani network has had longstanding links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, seen to have used the insurgent group as one of its "strategic assets" in Afghanistan.
The ISI is under a cloud following the discovery and killing of bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, facing questions of complicity in shielding him or plain incompetence. (Reuters)