* Jirga seen as political event to boost Karzai
* U.S. pushes Karzai not to sway on red lines
* Battlefield momentum sought before reconciliation drive
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, May 28 (Reuters) - The United States wants next week’s peace "jirga" to boost Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s credibility but is counting on him not making major overtures to the Taliban until momentum has shifted on the battlefield.
"What we hope is that this process will help demonstrate Karzai as a true national leader," said a senior Obama administration official of next week’s jirga, a traditional gathering of Afghan elders and notables to discuss prospects for peace in the nine-year war.
"This is really just the beginning of an important process and the Afghan government will be seeking some consensus on how to proceed," added the official, who declined to be named. Washington does not want to be seen as interfering in what it says must be an Afghan-led process.
Despite the hands-off appearance, U.S. officials said Karzai was pressed hard during his fence-building trip to Washington this month to make clear his intentions for the June 2-4 jirga.
Although the Taliban themselves are not invited, there are likely to be Taliban sympathizers among the thousands of tribal and district chiefs who will attend. Washington is expected to have observers at the meeting.
With U.S. military action heating up in the southern Kandahar region, Washington does not want Karzai to cede to what it sees as unpalatable concessions to Taliban leaders.
"The red lines here are very clear," said the senior official, reiterating that only those who renounce violence and ties to al Qaeda, and who abide by the Afghan constitution — including women’s rights — would be acceptable.
In other words, the U.S. is not counting on the jirga to make major breakthroughs. It will not be a Dayton-style peace initiative — the Bosnian peace accord brokered in 1995 by Richard Holbrooke, the senior U.S. diplomat now in charge of the Afghanistan and Pakistan brief.
The United States is playing a delicate game in the run-up to the jirga, said Afghanistan expert Bruce Riedel. It has given Karzai the green light to go ahead on peace moves but does not want anything substantial to occur until U.S. forces have the upper hand in upcoming battles in Kandahar.
"We understand that it is better for Karzai to be seen as flexible rather than inflexible," said Riedel, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution.
"So the onus of responsibility for scuttling any political process will be on the Taliban and not due to Karzai."
One danger, said Afghanistan expert Ashley Tellis, was that the "wrong" people could dominate jirga discussions and, for example, refuse to sign onto any plan unless foreign forces depart — a demand the Taliban has made in the past.
"If you get the jirga discussions dominated by these themes, then the whole thing could boomerang," said Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"They (the Obama administration) are counting on the fact that the logic of the situation will produce a non-event."
The U.S. push so far has been to encourage Karzai to put his efforts into re-integrating foot-soldiers of the Taliban and leave senior leaders for later. Pakistan and other regional players will also likely play a role in reconciliation talks.
What role the United States could play in any future negotiations is also up for grabs, with many experts suggesting Washington would be a poor choice to mediate because of its obvious vested interests in the war.
"I think we are too party to the conflict. The prime objective is to get us out of Afghanistan," said James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation.
He said it was prudent for Washington to lower expectations for the jirga, but waiting for battlefield momentum to shift before serious talks could begin might be unrealistic.
"The problem with that is that the time may never come. And so one may have to be satisfied in a situation in which their momentum has been blunted and not replaced by momentum on our side," said Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002." (Editing by Todd Eastham)