By CNN's Elise Labott
The United States could inch closer next week toward peace talks with the Taliban if Afghan President Hamid Karzai blesses the negotiations, senior administration officials said Thursday.
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, who has been meeting secretly with Taliban negotiators for more than a year, will head to Kabul next week to work out the details of future talks
"We don't have any idea standing here today what the outcome of such discussions could be," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday, following a meeting with Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci. "I think all of us are entering into it with a very realistic sense of what is possible. And that includes, of course, President Karzai and his government, which after all bear the ultimate responsibility and the consequences of any such discussions."
Clinton on Wednesday acknowledged discussions about opening up a Taliban office in Qatar and transferring some Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay as part of the U.S. support for Afghan reconciliation efforts. She stressed that nothing had been concluded, but said she was sending Grossman to Kabul and Qatar next week for further consultations. Diplomatic sources said that depending on the outcome of the talks with Karzai, Grossman could have another meeting with the Taliban.
Secret talks between the United States and the Taliban began in November 2010, sources said. Senior U.S. officials and diplomatic sources said German officials brokered initial meetings with Tayeb al-Agha, an aide to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The sources said after a series of meetings Agha was able to prove his bona fides as an interlocutor with key Taliban leaders.
The idea is for the talks to be Afghan-led, senior officials said, with as much U.S. participation as the Afghans need and want.
"Our idea is that this cannot be a conversation without the Afghans," one senior administration official said. "We have been very emphatic with the parties that Afghan government needs to be part of this. It doesn't make any sense."
The talks would be the product of what officials call "confidence-building measures," such as the opening of the office in Qatar's capital Doha and a Taliban renunciation of terrorism in exchange for the release of five Taliban members being detained at Guantanamo Bay. Clinton said Wednesday no transfers were imminent, but senior officials said one idea gaining steam is for the five detainees to be transferred to the custody of Qatar on the condition they would be kept under surveillance and not be sent abroad. Grossman's talks in Kabul are expected to address the possible release of the detainees.
Once described as preconditions for peace talks to occur, Clinton now says insurgents must lay down their arms, accept the Afghan constitution and end ties with al-Qaeda as "necessary outcomes" of the discussions.
The deal was expected to be announced at a conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, last month until Karzai objected. Officials said Karzai had not sufficiently consulted his government about the talks but is now expected to play ball. On Wednesday Clinton pointed to positive statements made last week from both the Taliban and Karzai, which she said "there is support for such discussions, for the (Taliban) political office to open in Qatar."
"This requires careful tending," one senior administration official said. "He does believe in reconciliation, and Afghans have been coming together. But our conversations with him aren't always easy."
This official said that U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has been speaking frequently with Karzai to allay his concerns and has developed a good relationship with the Afghan leader.
Crocker has also objected to a recent secret National Intelligence Estimate that warned the Taliban have not abandoned their goal of reclaiming power, which could cast doubts on the success of any peace talks.
The official said that in separate comments Crocker and Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the assessment was overly pessimistic in warning that gains achieved by NATO-led forces were not sustainable.
"He and Allen don't think the situation is as dark as the NIE says," the official said. "They believe the work we are doing can achieve good results and it's not all for naught."
Officials said the NIE has revived a debate between the White House, in particular Vice President Joe Biden, and the Defense and State departments over the pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Officials and diplomatic sources said Biden is favoring an accelerated drawdown, while the State Department and the Pentagon have argued the end of 2014 should stand in order to sufficiently train Afghan forces.
Another wild card in the talks with the Taliban is Pakistan. As Afghanistan's neighbor with the strongest influence over the Taliban, Pakistan's buy-in in critical to a peace deal. But U.S. officials have acknowledged the political situation in the country, with increased tensions between the civilian government and military leaders, complicates Islamabad's involvement.