The Obama administration is a partner with the Afghan government in its peace talks with the Taliban, even though U.S. officials aren't sitting at the table, two top administration officials said Thursday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said any reconciliation between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and the Taliban insurgents must be led by Afghans. But he told a NATO new conference that the U.S. is offering advice and following the initial talks.
The Obama administration's position is sensitive, because taking any role in talks with the Taliban risks criticism within the U.S.
"One of the principles we have established with President Karzai is transparency with one another as this process goes forward so we know what they are doing, they know what we are doing and they understand what our requirements are," Gates said. "And frankly, we share with them what we think will be in their own best interest as the process goes along."
Gates added: "It's basically a partnership as we go forward with this with clearly the Afghans in the lead. I think we're confident that we have access into this process and plenty of opportunities to make our concerns as well as our suggestions known."
His comments came after the revelation Wednesday that NATO was providing safe passage to Taliban officials engaged in settlement talks, the clearest sign yet that the U.S. takes Kabul's discussions with the insurgents seriously.
Previously, the Afghan government has acknowledged that it has been talking with the Taliban, but discussions between the two sides have been described as mostly informal and indirect message exchanges relying on mediators.
In Washington, Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and a periodic adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, said exploratory peace talks are a positive move. But he said it would be a mistake to assume fruitful negotiations will follow.
"I see no evidence that makes the case that this is a turning point," Biddle said in a telephone interview. "We know very little about what's being said and even less about whether anybody can delivery on what they're saying."
In taking a public role in the current talks, the Obama administration risks being accused of negotiating with the Taliban, the radical group that harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
By making the U.S. role public, the administration may be signaling to a U.S. public weary of the conflict that the Obama administration is committed to ending it. Obama plans to begin withdrawing some troops in July 2011, but there won't be large numbers coming home then.
U.S. military commanders, meanwhile, may feel comfortable with the talks because they believe that the insurgency has been damaged by the arrival of tens of thousands of additional troops in recent months. Though the Taliban are far from defeated, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S and NATO commander, and others say that the momentum has shifted to NATO forces.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, was more cautious in her assessment of the U.S. role in the talks.
She said that the U.S. continues to insist that, as part of any peace deal, the insurgents lay down their weapons, cut ties with al-Qaida and pledge to respect the Afghan constitution with its protections for women's rights.
While the U.S. supports what the Afghans are doing, she said, it isn't ready to make any judgment about how far the talks should go.
"There are a lot of different strains to it that may or may not be legitimate or borne out as producing any bona fide reconciliation," Clinton said.
"This will play out over a period of time," she said. "We're not yet ready to make any judgments about whether any of this will bear fruit."
This program aired on October 14, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.