KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghan opposition parties, taking advantage of the government's lack of progress in making peace with the Taliban, have opened their own channel to militant groups in hopes of putting their imprint on a deal to end 11 years of war and position themselves for next year's elections.
Taliban and opposition leaders confirmed to The Associated Press for the first time that the parties opposed to President Hamid Karzai have been talking since the beginning of the year to the Taliban as well as the militant group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a U.S.-declared terrorist.
They are trying to find a political resolution to the Afghan war ahead of two key events in 2014 -- the presidential race that will determine Karzai's successor and the final stage of withdrawal of international combat troops from the country. The Afghan constitution bans Karzai from running for a third term, and there are fears that the troop withdrawal plus a new leader in the palace could usher in a new era of instability in Afghanistan.
"We want a solution for Afghanistan ... but every step should be a soft one," said Hamid Gailani, a founding member of the united opposition. "We have to start somewhere."
Two senior Taliban officials, who spoke to the AP, indicated that the group is willing to pursue talks to move the political track forward. One sign of this was that they said they were contemplating replacing their top negotiator because he isn't getting the desired results.
The Taliban wants to talk with the U.S., but it broke off formal discussions with the Americans last year. The Taliban have steadfastly rejected negotiations with the Karzai government, which they view as a puppet of foreign powers.
Taliban interlocutors have had back-channel discussions and private meetings with representatives from various countries. A senior U.S. official said the Taliban are talking to representatives of more than 30 countries, and indirectly with the U.S.
Still, a lack of transparency surrounding all the discussions through various channels makes it difficult to know exactly who's talking with whom.
Karzai, who misses no chance to champion his nation's sovereignty over foreign powers, demands that any talks be led by his government. Early last year, he said that his administration, the U.S. and the Taliban had held three-way talks aimed at moving toward a political settlement of the war.
The U.S. and the Taliban, however, both deny that such talks took place.
Hekmatyar's Islamist militant group, meanwhile, has held talks with both the Karzai government and the United States.
As the opposition pursues peace with the Taliban, Karzai has launched a new round of verbal attacks on his supposed ally, the United States, which have infuriated some in Washington and confused some of his senior advisers.
In recent weeks, Karzai has accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban to keep foreign troops in Afghanistan and has attacked the Taliban for talking to foreigners while killing Afghan civilians at home.
Earlier this month, Karzai accused the West of trying to craft an agreement between the Taliban and his political opponents and vowed to oppose the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar if it was used for talks with anyone other than his government. The U.S. has denied the allegations.
The Afghan president also has stepped up his rhetoric against his political opponents, trying to paint them as American pawns in a grand U.S. scheme to install a government of its liking when the United States and NATO finish their withdraw of combat troops by Dec. 31, 2014.
The opposition -- united under a single banner called the Council of Cooperation of Political Parties -- is meanwhile trying to put its stamp on a post-war Afghanistan.
It says it has reached out to both the Taliban and Hekmatyar, a one-time U.S. ally who is now listed as a terrorist by Washington.
In addition to getting the blessing of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar, any peace deal would have to be supported by Hekmatyar, who has thousands of fighters and followers, primarily in the north and east.
Omar and Hekmatyar are bitter rivals, but both launch attacks on Afghan government and foreign forces and both have suspended direct talks with the U.S., saying they were going nowhere.
The opposition group is full of political heavyweights.
There are former presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ali Ahmed Jalali -- both of whom were said to be Washington's preferred candidates in the last presidential election in 2009. There's also Rashid Dostum, who leads the minority Uzbek ethnic group and Mohammed Mohaqiq, the leader of another minority ethnic group called the Hazaras.
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