BRUSSELS - 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 yesterday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said any reconciliation between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and the Taliban insurgents has to be led by Afghans. But he told a NATO news conference that the United States 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 United States.
"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."
He 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 United States takes Kabul's discussions with the insurgents seriously.
The Afghan government has acknowledged talks with the Taliban, but had said they were mostly informal and indirect message exchanges.
In taking a public role in the current talks, the Obama administration risks being accused of negotiating with the Taliban, the same radical group that harbored Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.