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Talks between U.S., Taliban on Afghan war expected ‘in the next few days’

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By Jill Dougherty. Chelsea J. Carter and Masoud Popalzai

CNN

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) — Peace talks between the United States and the Taliban over the war in Afghanistan will probably be held “in the next few days,” a senior U.S. administration official told CNN on Wednesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not offer up a time line for the discussions. But a prisoner exchange is one of the issues the United States intends to discuss with the Taliban. Senior U.S. officials say they want the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier captured by militants in 2009.

“We have every reason to believe” Bowe Bergdahl is alive, a Pentagon official told CNN.

News that the meeting was moving forward followed a tumultuous day that saw questions raised about the peace process after an angry Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was pulling out of the peace talks with the Taliban and canceling security talks with the United States.

Karzai was angered about reports that the Taliban appeared to be offering their new office in Doha, Qatar, up as an alternative government, going so far as to put up a sign proclaiming it the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the name the Taliban used during their rule.

In a statement released by Karzai’s office, the president said “foreign powers” were behind Tuesday’s opening of the Taliban office.

Karzai appeared to renew earlier claims that the Taliban and Western officials want to destabilize Afghanistan.

Despite Karzai’s decisions to pull back, the United States continues “close coordination” with the Afghan government on peace and security talks, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jenn Psaki said Wednesday.

Karzai’s office said Taliban rhetoric about continuing to take the fight to Afghan and foreign fighters, even as the group pursues a political solution, was “completely in contradiction to the assurance that was given to Afghanistan by the United States of America.”

He used similar justification for suspending security negotiations with the United States over the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan past the scheduled pullout next year.

In March, Karzai appeared to accuse the United States and the Taliban of collusion, saying violent attacks by the group “show that the Taliban are serving the foreigners and are not against them.”

He later walked the remarks back, saying they were misinterpreted.

Speaking Wednesday in Berlin, U.S. President Barack Obama said he wasn’t surprised by Karzai’s response.

“We had anticipated that at the outset there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground,” Obama said.

But he said that he believes Karzai remains committed to political reconciliation, and that he needs to be.

“We don’t expect that it will be easy,” Obama told reporters at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “But we do think ultimately we’re going to need to see Afghans talking to Afghans about how they can move forward and end the cycle of violence so they can start actually building their country.”

Conflicting Taliban messages

The Taliban opened the Doha office with a promise to renounce international terrorism and commit to peace negotiations, conditions the United States had set before it would support establishing the office as part of peace talks.

But a Taliban spokesman also said the group would continue its military campaign, a promise soon followed by the group’s claim of responsibility for the death of four U.S. troops.

Psaki said that the name of the Taliban office came as a surprise to U.S. officials and that Qatari officials took the name off the office door Wednesday, replacing it with the more neutral “Political Office of the Afghan Taliban.”

Karzai’s office said Wednesday that his administration wants peace with the Taliban.

“But the messages of continuation of fighting which were sent out during the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar are completely in contradiction with the peace-wanting spirit of the government of Afghanistan,” Karzai said.

He said the High Peace Council would not take part in the talks with the Taliban in Doha “until the process is completely left to Afghans.”

Karzai earlier Wednesday suspended talks with the United States over maintaining a troop presence in Afghanistan to help train Afghan forces past the scheduled 2014 pullout date for Western troops.

The agreement could provide the basis for any future NATO role in Afghanistan.

Karzai’s decision to suspend those talks came a day after NATO-led troops transferred security responsibility to Afghan forces.

The Afghan government suspended the talks “in view of the contradiction between acts and the statements made by the United States of America in regard to the Peace Process,” it said in a statement.

Hopes revived for captured soldier

Bergdahl was captured after he finished his guard shift at a combat outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, in the southeastern section of the county. Since his capture, four videos of the Idaho native have been released.

The last video was sent in February 2011, and it’s unclear where Bergdahl is being held now. He was a private at the time.

The army has been giving him promotions that would have come to him had his Army career gone as planned. If he returns home safely, the Army will give him all the back pay that he has earned while in captivity.

The military told CNN it had no reason to believe Bergdahl was dead.

Bergdahl’s family received a letter from the captive soldier recently. His father mentioned receiving the letter in an e-mail exchange with Dwight Murphy, the spokesman for the local POW/MIA group in Boise Valley, Idaho.

“We have received a letter from Bowe through the Red Cross!” the father says in the exchange. “He was scripted and redacted but he was no doubt alive and his faculties fully functioning as of two months ago.”

He did not say when he got the letter, but Murphy copied and pasted the exchange with the father on his Facebook page after receiving his permission to do so.

The father’s letter goes on say, “They are being very careful with him. He is still highly valued at high levels.

“Guantanamo, drones and politics in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Washington are still the big issues.”

His father has rarely spoken to the media.

In his exchange with Murphy, he said he believed “we are getting closer to a resolution.” But, he added, there seems to be a disagreement among the Taliban about the direction forward.

“It appears at least several parties want to arbitrate captive SGT Bowe, several others … want to keep fighting until every single Westerner is out,” the father said.

Jill Dougherty reported from Washington and Masoud Popalzai from Kabul. Chelsea J. Carter reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Mitra Mobasherat, Ed Payne, Joe Sterling, Cristy Lenz and Michael Pearson contributed to this report.

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