(The New York Times)
BRUSSELS — United States-led forces are permitting the movement of senior Taliban leaders to attend initial peace talks in Kabul, the clearest indication of American support for high-level discussions aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, senior NATO and Obama administration officials said.
While the talks involve senior members of the Taliban, officials emphasized that they were preliminary, and that they could not tell how serious the insurgents — or the weak government of President Hamid Karzai — were about reaching an accord.
But comments by administration officials in Washington and a senior NATO official in Brussels on Wednesday indicated that the United States was doing more to encourage a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan than officials had previously disclosed, and might reflect growing pessimism that the buildup of American forces there will produce decisive gains against the Taliban insurgency.
The NATO official confirmed that “there has been outreach by very senior members of the Taliban to the highest levels of the Afghan government.” Though the talks are preliminary, he said, the prospect of negotiating a settlement of the war effort, now nine years old, is alluring enough that personnel from NATO nations in Afghanistan “have indeed facilitated to various degrees the contacts” by allowing Taliban leaders to travel to the Afghan capital.
Mr. Karzai has been trying for many months to persuade Taliban leaders to join his government, and the efforts intensified late last year after President Obama said that he intended to begin scaling back American troop levels in Afghanistan by the summer of 2011. American officials had earlier insisted that such talks were a sideshow to the main war effort and that they were unlikely to produce results until the Taliban felt weakened by the intensified NATO assault.
Now, some officials appear eager to show that they are pursuing a new approach in Afghanistan that explores a possible political settlement even as the military tries to step up pressure on the Taliban.
The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, told reporters in Afghanistan recently that high-level Taliban leaders were reaching out to senior Afghan officials to start discussions. General Petraeus seems determined to show progress on achieving American goals in Afghanistan — both military and political — ahead of a December review of the war effort ordered by Mr. Obama.
Support for talks also comes as American officials have expressed a growing frustration with the complex role played by Pakistan, which provides safe haven for many insurgents and has ambitions of dictating the postwar political situation in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has insisted that any lasting solution in Afghanistan must involve reconciliation with the Taliban, and has urged the United States to participate in peace talks. At the same time, Pakistan has disrupted some efforts by Mr. Karzai to reach out to Taliban leaders hiding in Pakistan, presumably because he made those overtures without Pakistan’s approval.
It is not clear which Taliban leaders have been allowed to travel to Kabul to conduct talks with Mr. Karzai’s government. The NATO official also did not disclose what members of NATO’s Afghanistan force, the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, have done to support the talks beyond offering safe passage to insurgents participating in the discussions.
“It would be extremely difficult for a senior Taliban member to get to Kabul without being killed or captured if ISAF were not witting,” the official said. “And ISAF is witting.”
In Washington, officials have been more cautious about prospects for a peaceful settlement. One senior American official noted recently that the Taliban, while war-weary, had little incentive to make concessions because they still had the sense that they could outlast the American presence in the country. Mr. Karzai, others noted, can be an erratic negotiator, and part of the mystery in Kabul is whether he is keeping American and NATO allies abreast of his conversations.
Mr. Obama signed off on a policy early this year that talks were possible as long as Taliban leaders, at the end of the process, agreed to renounce violence, lay down their arms, and pledge fidelity to the Afghan Constitution. As recently as August, two senior American officials said, Mr. Obama was updated on the progress of those efforts, officials said, and reaffirmed that the United States should aid the process, even if the Taliban involved in the talks represented only breakaway factions of the insurgent group.
“We’re not expecting Mullah Omar to walk in the door,” one senior administration official said recently, referring to the Taliban figure Mullah Muhammad Omar. “But there have been pings from commanders a few notches down.”
The NATO official said: “These are in the very preliminary stages of discussions. So you would not yet characterize this by any means as a negotiation.”
The NATO official discussed developments in Afghanistan on standard diplomatic ground rules of anonymity because of the delicacy of the reconciliation discussions. The official spoke in advance of a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday that will include alliance ministers of foreign affairs and of defense. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are scheduled to attend.
Next month, President Obama is expected to attend a NATO summit meeting in Lisbon, where the United States must make the case to nervous — and in some cases, soon-departing — allies that there is a viable plan for turning more of Afghanistan over to the government. That effort will have little chance of success, many officials believe, if there is no political path for integrating low-level Taliban fighters and reconciling with their leaders.
Congressional officials and independent experts voiced skepticism on Wednesday that the current discussions would lead to any immediate breakthrough.
“We’ve now got two years of reports of talks about talks, but none of it has panned out as serious,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who led Mr. Obama’s first Afghanistan policy review.
But the increased NATO military operations in southern Afghanistan aimed at killing or capturing midlevel Taliban commanders has caused some Taliban leaders “nervousness about life and fortune,” Mr. Riedel said.
“It’s a more dicey game. You’re starting to see people wanting to put money down on all bets.”