Kabul, Afghanistan (AP) - Over the past week, U.S. 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
"There have been contacts for years," said Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat and the U.N.'s former envoy to
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
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
He said the Taliban are dubious that the
"There is no trust line between the
Muttawakil called on the
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
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
"The very good news is that the
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-Qaida. 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 President Barack 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
A senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said
In February, the Pakistanis arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader, in a joint raid with the
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 U.N. envoy, said the arrest abruptly halted secret U.N. 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
Karzai recently asked
Gannon reported from