The United States and Saudi Arabia are discussing how they could support safe havens for moderate Taliban leaders who seek to negotiate a reconciliation with the Afghan government, Pentagon spokesman Dana White said Thursday.
White said the topic came up during discussions Thursday at the Pentagon between Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and visiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, 2001, a separate defense official said on the condition of anonymity. That pre-existing relationship is why the U.S. thinks that having the Saudis involved in a safe haven proposal makes it more credible.
“Ensuring that there is a safe haven for those who would want to negotiate a political solution” would help attract moderate Taliban to peace talks, White said. Those members’ families are often held hostage in order to force them to keep fighting, she said.
White said the talks did not identify where a safe haven would be located, or how it would be protected.
“There have been members in political parts of the Taliban who have shown more interest than others, that are a little more formalized, and I believe they have had meetings in Saudi Arabia” about how to pursue political reconciliation, White said.
White said the Saudi crown prince “was supportive of finding ways to help the reconciliation.”
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has put a peace offer on the table, and analysts say the ball is now in the Taliban’s court. But so far the militants are showing no sign of being interested.
In February, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban the opportunity to return to reconciliation talks without any preconditions. In earlier offers, the Taliban had quickly rejected the offer, said spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, but so far they have not rejected the idea.
“This time, elements of the Taliban are clearly considering it,” Andrews said.
Reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government is seen as a key element to any end of U.S. military operations there. U.S. service members have been fighting in Afghanistan since October 2001; there are currently 15,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan.