U.S. tries to restart peace talks with Taliban

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WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Jan. 11 that a negotiating office for the Taliban was about to open in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, optimism soared within the administration that peace talks would soon be back on track.

But January's optimism has become February's reality check: There is still no agreement to open the office, and Karzai, back in Kabul after his Washington visit, says there will be no deal until Qatar meets his conditions in writing.

As the Obama administration nears a decision on the pace of U.S. combat troop withdrawals between now and the end of 2014, jump-starting reconciliation has become a key element of its exit strategy.

Without some kind of political initiative under way as its forces leave, the administration fears that the United States will again be accused of abandoning the region, just as it was at the end of the Soviet Union's Afghan occupation in the early 1990s.

More immediately, negotiations are critical to hopes for a prisoner exchange with the Taliban that could bring a homecoming for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. service member known to be a Taliban captive.

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Taliban leaders have been stubborn, setting their own conditions for resuming negotiations with the United States, which came to an abrupt halt early last year.

But Karzai himself is the biggest cause of U.S. teeth-gnashing, and not for the first time, according to several administration officials. The crux of the latest disagreement is Karzai's demand that Qatar produce a written memorandum of understanding agreeing to his preconditions for the Taliban office in Doha. Qatar has long preferred to operate through the United States and has rejected Karzai's demand for written assurances.

When Karzai visited Washington for several days last month, administration officials thought they had finessed those issues, at least enough to get the Qatar office up and running. Since then, Karzai has refused to budge.

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