Kudos to the Washington Times for a terrific piece about talking to the Taliban.

It’s been widely reported, over the past several years, that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, several top Afghan officials — including President Karzai’s brother — and others have been engaged in talks with top- and mid-level Taliban officials. But the Times reports that the CIA is also involved.

According to the paper, the talks are being conducted currently with mid-level Taliban officials “connected to Mullah Omar,” the Taliban chieftain, who “has been hiding in the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi and was brought there with the knowledge of Pakistani intelligence.”

From the report:

“Several Pakistani, Middle Eastern and U.S. officials said in interviews that Saudi and Pakistani officials, acting with tacit American encouragement, are talking with ‘second tier’ Taliban leaders connected with Mullah Omar. The Washington Times reported recently that Mullah Omar has been hiding in the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi and was brought there with the knowledge of Pakistani intelligence.

“‘You’ve got a lot of players involved in the effort,’ said a U.S. official with knowledge of the talks, ‘not just within the U.S. government, but foreign partners, too.’

“The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, added: ‘U.S. intelligence isn’t the lead on talking to members of the Afghan Taliban who may be interested in discussing reconciliation. But when it makes sense, the [U.S.] intelligence community is brought in for its expertise, relationships and judgment.’

“Such meetings were reported to have taken place in the Saudi holy city of Mecca in September 2008, but they continue elsewhere today.

“[Kenneth] Katzman [of the Congressional Research Service] said Qayyum Karzai, a brother of the Afghan president, participated in the 2008 talks. He also said there were meetings in January in Saudi Arabia and contacts in the United Arab Emirates.”

The Washington Times adds:

“A Western diplomat based in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Pakistani and Saudi officials are using their ‘connections and influence within Afghan Taliban to elicit some meaningful way to end the deadlock.’

“A senior Pakistani official who is familiar with the talks and also asked not to be named said that ‘the U.S. is trying to leverage the Taliban in order to find a resolution to the war in accordance with President Obama’s strategy.'”

If Obama’s July, 2011, deadline to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan means anything at all, he’ll have to expend enormous resources between now and then in search of a political and diplomatic solution. Rather than launching hellfire-and-damnation attacks against the Taliban in its Pakistani redoubts, which would be counterproductive and amount to a virtual war against Pakisan, a supposed ally, Obama is going to have to get Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to being Mullah Omar, or his representatives, to the bargaining table.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. Mullah Omar is a nut, and he’s unlikely to agree to any kind of compromise with the “crusader and Zionist” enemy. But Pakistan, which exercises vast leverage over Omar and his Taliban fanatics — including Gulbuddin Hekmaytar and the Haqqani clan, based in Waziristan — might be able to make the Taliban an offer it can’t refuse. Before Pakistan will do so, however, the Pakistani army and its intelligence service, the ISI, must be given assurances that Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan will be protected. That’s the only reason why Pakistan’s army supports the Taliban in the first place.

Obama may have acted stupidly by ordering tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Still, there’s hope that, in his mind at least — and in the minds of US diplomats — he’s created some political space for a negotiated settlement.