By Warren Strobel and Mehreen Zahra-Malik
WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will discuss matters of war, including future U.S. troop levels and Afghanistan's army, when they meet on Friday, but matters of peace may be the most delicate item on their long agenda.
After nearly 10 months in limbo, tentative reconciliation efforts involving Taliban insurgents, the Karzai government and other major Afghan factions have shown new signs of life, resurrecting tantalizing hopes for a negotiated end to decades of war.
Pakistan, which U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused of backing the insurgents and meddling in Afghanistan, has recently signaled an apparent policy shift toward promoting its neighbor's stability as most U.S. combat troops prepare to depart, top Pakistani and Afghan officials said.
In another potentially significant development, Taliban representatives met outside Paris last month with members of the Afghan High Peace Council - although not directly with members of the Karzai government, which they have long shunned.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the developments are promising - but that major challenges remain to opening negotiations, let alone reaching an agreement on the war-ravaged country's political future.
Hopes for Afghan peace talks have been raised before, only to be dashed. Last March, the Taliban suspended months of quiet discussions with Washington aimed at getting the insurgents and the Karzai government to the peace table.
Obama is expected to press the Afghan president to bless the formal opening of a Taliban political office in the Gulf state of Qatar as a way to jump-start inter-Afghan talks.
Karzai has been lukewarm to the idea, apparently fearing his government would be sidelined in any negotiations.
TRIP AT A TURNING POINT
Karzai's meeting with Obama, at the end of a three-day visit to Washington, is shaping up to be one of the most critical encounters between the two leaders, as the White House weighs how rapidly to remove most of the roughly 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and how large a residual force to leave after 2014.
Obama, about to begin his second term in office, appears determined to wrap up U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. On Monday, he announced as his nominee for Pentagon chief former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who appears likely to favor a sizeable U.S. troop drawdown.
Other issues on the agenda have plenty of potential for causing friction: the future size and focus of the Afghan military; a festering dispute over control of the country's largest detention center; and the future of international aid after 2014.
Karzai's trip "is one of the most important ones because the discussions we are going to have with our counterparts will define the relations between (the) United States and Afghanistan," Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul told the lower house of parliament this month.
No final announcement on post-2014 U.S. troop levels is expected during Karzai's visit, and the issue is further complicated by Washington's insistence on legal immunity for American troops that remain.
General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, recommended keeping between roughly 6,000 and 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, but the White House is considering possibly leaving as few as 3,000 troops.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House had asked for options to be developed for keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country.
PAST PEACE HOPES DASHED
Last year, the Obama administration hoped to kick-start peace talks with a deal that would have seen Washington transfer five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison. In return, the Taliban would renounce international terrorism and state a willingness to enter talks with Karzai's representatives.
That deal never came off, and the question now is whether it, or an alternative peace process, can get under way as the U.S. military presence rapidly winds down. Continued...