KABUL: Over the past week, US and Afghan officials have been revealing tantalizing tidbits about talks with Taliban leaders, raising hopes for a peaceful resolution to a war in its 10th year.
"The international community, our neighbors and our people are marching toward it with full strength," President Hamid Karzai said in a speech Wednesday. "The rumors we are hearing from the Taliban and our other brothers say a lot of people are hopeful about this peace process."
But some coalition officials, Afghans and people familiar with insurgent leaders say contacts with militants are nothing new and have been overstated — perhaps to split the ranks of fighters or create the impression in the West of progress in resolving the unpopular war.
They also questioned how the US could be serious about peace at a time when it is escalating its military commitment with punishing attacks in southern Afghanistan and drone strikes on militants across the border in Pakistan.
"There have been contacts for years," said Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat and the UN’s former envoy to Afghanistan. "My feeling is that this is a lot of spin that the war strategy is working — that things are moving forward more than they are."
Those with knowledge of the discussions say Karzai’s government has been in contact with top-level insurgents, but caution that the talks are fragile and are not formal peace negotiations.
Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top civilian representative, said Wednesday that the Afghan government had opened channels of communication with some insurgent leaders.
"Some of these are significant members of the Taliban leadership," Sedwill said.
But he added: "It’s not even yet talks about talks."
The Taliban deny that any of their representatives have been involved in talks. They claim their leaders will not discuss peace with the government unless foreign troops first leave Afghanistan.
The Associated Press was unable to confirm independently a report in The New York Times that three members of the Taliban’s leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura, have taken part in preliminary discussions with the Afghan government.
Experts familiar with the insurgent leadership expressed doubt that such senior Taliban figures would be involved in direct talks.
Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former Afghan foreign minister and confidant of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, said the Taliban leadership has not agreed to negotiate.
"I’m hearing the comments of the US high-ranking officials, but if the leaders of the Taliban are not involved, then how can they make peace?"
He said the Taliban are dubious that the US is serious about a peace process, because it has raised its troop levels and is stepping up its military campaign in southern Afghanistan.
"There is no trust line between the US and international community and the Taliban," he said. "Because of this, the Taliban are not serious about talking."
Muttawakil called on the US to release Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and the UN to remove the names of Taliban figures from a sanctions list. He said such goodwill gestures might build trust that could provide momentum for eventual negotiations.
Hakimullah Mujahed, former Taliban ambassador to the United Nations and a member of an Afghan government council tasked with exploring contacts, called the reports of ongoing discussions a "propaganda campaign."
"If these people were sincere in taking part in negotiations, it would not be in the media, it would be secret and underground and through some friendly government," he said.
Muttawakil agreed that any formal negotiations would be best held outside Afghanistan, perhaps in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Germany.
US officials have long said they didn’t expect the Taliban — the hard-line Islamic movement that harbored Osama bin Laden — to talk peace as long as the militants believed they were winning. That stance changed publicly last week when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed exploratory talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In Washington, the subject of the talks was touched upon Wednesday at a monthly Afghanistan-Pakistan review convened by President Barack Obama, but was not discussed in detail, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
The official said the US supports the efforts of the Karzai government at reconciliation with the Taliban and has been in close contact with Kabul about the strategy. The official declined to provide details on the US role or the Taliban officials involved beyond published reports, but did not dispute those reports.
The official said the US believes there must be a political component to the end of the Afghan war, and that there’s not an outcome where the Taliban would be entirely eliminated.
The top NATO commander, Gen. David Petraeus, even confirmed that coalition forces were providing safe passage to senior Taliban leaders who were talking to the Afghan government.
Charles Dunbar, a professor of international relations at Boston University, was critical of NATO for publicizing such talks.
"The very good news is that the US and NATO recognize the importance of letting the Afghans (and the Pakistanis) try to work things out," Dunbar said. "The bad news is that the negotiations are not being conducted in secret, and I am surprised at the degree of NATO involvement. I would have thought a policy of toleration, but not active support, of the talks would be better."
Others pointed out that contacts with militants are nothing new in the war.
A member of the Afghan parliament said Wednesday that Karzai’s government has been in discussions for months with the leader of the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction closely tied to Al-Qaeda. The parliamentarian, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said government officials had been in direct contact with Jalaludin Haqqani, the network’s aging leader.
It is believed that Obama’s stated goal of beginning to draw down troops by next summer has led Karzai and the Pakistanis to seek deals with militants, calculating that coalition forces will not be in the country long enough to defeat them.
Karzai made a veiled reference to Pakistan in his speech Wednesday, saying "we’re in touch with our neighbors and we have good relations with them."
A senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said Islamabad has not been asked to assist in the supposed current talks with Taliban representatives and does not know the identities of the participants.
Pakistan is believed to have foiled previous negotiations.
In February, the Pakistanis arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s No. 2 leader, in a joint raid with the CIA.
Afghan officials say Baradar had been in contact with Karzai. The Afghans believed the Pakistanis agreed to the arrest to sever those contacts until they received assurances they would get what they wanted out of a peace deal.
Eide, the former UN envoy, said the arrest abruptly halted secret UN contacts with the insurgency at a time when the efforts were gathering momentum. He said the discussions that he and others had with senior Taliban members began in the spring of 2009 and included face-to-face conversations in Dubai and elsewhere.
Karzai recently asked Pakistan to hand over Baradar and an estimated 30 other detained Taliban militants to the Afghan government.
Additional reporting by Amir Shah and Erica Werner.