U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan James Cunningham speaks Jan. 17 during a news event at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He said the United States wants serious peace negotiations with the Taliban but that it has not yet been possible to get the process underway. (Patrick Quinn / AP)
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KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States wants serious peace negotiations with the Taliban to begin, but it has not been possible to get the process underway, the American ambassador to Afghanistan said Thursday.
James Cunningham said it was important for the Afghan government to get the talks started and to get the best results possible, yet he acknowledged that the peace process has not "even really begun."
The Afghan peace process, which has made little headway since it began several years ago, is hobbled by distrust among the major players, including the United States. While talks with the Taliban remained stalled, there are signs of increasing efforts to get them back on track. U.S.-backed talks broke down last March in a dispute over the release of five Taliban detainees held in U.S. custody at a military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
With Afghan presidential elections and the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops looming in 2014, Afghanistan and its international allies are trying to push a peace process with the Taliban to bring an end to the conflict.
"Our goal, or rather what we would like to see and I think the Afghans would like to see, is the beginning if not conclusion of a negotiation — at least the beginning of a serious process on peace and reconciliation — as soon as possible," Cunningham told reporters. "But so far it hasn't proven possible to bring those pieces together to get that going."
Cunningham made the remarks following President Hamid Karzai's meeting in Washington last week with President Barack Obama. Peace talks were part of that discussion.
"We think it's important if we can do it, to help the Afghans get this process underway, and then we will try to help them steer it to the best result possible," he said.
There are hopes that Pakistan's decision to release more than two dozen members of the Taliban will help get the peace process going. But it remains unclear if those Taliban figures will help the peace process or rejoin the insurgency.
The last release came Dec. 31, when Pakistan freed eight men, including the Taliban's justice minister when the hardline regime ruled Afghanistan before being ousted in 2001, and a one-time guard of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Cunningham said that although their release was a positive step, there was no indication of where the former detainees had gone "or where they are going."
He said the Afghan government was trying to ensure they did not return to the insurgency.
"We obviously don't want dangerous individuals released to become a threat again to Afghan civilians, Afghan forces or our forces," Cunningham said. "So we have been working with the Afghans to make sure that doesn't happen — through a variety of reintegration and other mechanisms."
He added that the Pakistanis so far have taken a "hands-off kind of approach to the people that they have released."