White House looks to 'accelerate' Taliban peace talks

There is the "potential for trying to accelerate an Afghan-led peace process" during meetings between President Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai set for Friday at the White House, Doug Lute, the administration's top adviser for South Asia, told reporters Tuesday. 

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The Afghan-led peace talks with the Taliban, as part of an overarching peace plan, "is absolutely essential to bringing the war to a responsible close," Lute said.

The Afghan president arrived in Washington late Tuesday, and will meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later this week before sitting down with President Obama.

Kabul has already drafted a "very detailed, five-phase approach" to getting the Taliban to the negotiation table, Lute said, noting the Karzai administration has been working closely with Pakistan on the terms of the deal, according to Lute. 

"We really have ... a clearer path towards Afghan-led peace talks than we've had in the past, and I think this will be a topic that [Obama and Karzai] discuss," he added. 

Specifically, administration officials are looking to leverage the Afghan peace plan as a way to possibly end the deadly cross border raids into eastern Afghanistan by militants based in Pakistan. 

The White House sees the peace plan, and Islamabad's critical role in that formulating that plan, as a way to stifle or completely eliminate that cross border threat, according to Lute. 

The attacks, particularly those carried out by the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network, has continued to be a roadblock in increasingly strained relations between Washington and Islamabad.

Border clashes with Haqqani fighters and coalition forces have produced some of the heaviest fighting since the Obama administration surged more than 20,000 U.S. troops into the southern part of the country in 2009.

"That's what the Afghan-led peace process is all about. It's about making irrelevant the safe havens in Pakistan," according to Lute. 

But aside from a handful of informal meetings with Taliban leaders, Afghan officials believe their peace plan and eventual direct negotiations with the terror group are highly unlikely before U.S. and coalition forces leave. 

"The contacts have taken place mostly at the provincial level. For instance, an official may meet Taliban commanders and urge them not to attack schools," an Afghan official involved in the process told Reuters last November. 

While the White House officials will likely push Karzai to step up efforts on the Afghan peace plan, administration officials made clear that plan was Kabul's alone to run. 

"It's not our aim to control Afghanistan or to determine its politics after 2014," Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, said during the same Tuesday briefing. 

"This ... legitimately has to be an Afghan-owned and -led process ... which we think is a very reasonable, attainable, realistic approach to the peace process," Lute added.

That said, the U.S. and others "will have an important role to play" in getting both sides to the negotiating table.

"But the process itself has got to be owned by them," he added.