Updated at 8:55 a.m.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The senior Afghan officials leading the country's new peace council said they believed the Taliban were ready for direct negotiations and reiterated an offer of safe passage for militant leaders willing to meet with representatives of the Afghan government inside or outside of the country.
Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is heading a 70-member High Peace Council, told reporters in Kabul today that Afghan officials had already met with some members of the Taliban, though he declined to identify the militants or specify their positions within the armed group. Rabbani said that he believed the armed group was prepared to engage in face-to-face talks aimed at bringing a negotiated end to the nine-year-old war.
"The Taliban haven't rejected talks and negotiations completely," said Rabbani, a former mujahedeen leader who served as Afghanistan's president until being ousted by the Taliban in 1996. "They have some conditions to start the negotiations process. It gives us hope that they want to talk and negotiate." Rabbani said that he had previously held two rounds of serious peace talks with Taliban representatives in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and said he and others from the council would be willing to leave Afghanistan for future talks with the armed group.
Massoom Stanekzai, a senior adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on reconciliation, told reporters here that the 70 members of the peace council would be prepared to leave Kabul and meet with Taliban representatives elsewhere in the country, such as in the militant strongholds of eastern and southern Afghanistan. He called on the U.S.-led military coalition to temporarily halt operations in areas where talks were taking place to ensure the safety of the Taliban representatives.
"The cooperation of NATO is essential," he said.
Stanekzai declined to comment about news reports that NATO had begun allowing senior Taliban leaders travel to Kabul to meet with Afghan officials for peace talks. A senior NATO official had told reporters in Brussels Wednesday that the alliance had "facilitated" the movement of high-level militants into the Afghan capital for talks with the "highest levels of the Afghan government."
Capt. Gary Kirchner, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said Thursday that he had no information about which militants may have come to Kabul or how the talks had gone.
Still, senior U.S. and NATO officials have made clear in recent days that they are increasingly supportive of the Karzai government's outreach to the Taliban. American officials had long believed that lower-ranking fighters, particularly those motivated to fight primarily for financial reasons, could be amenable to laying down their weapons. But the officials had felt that higher-level Taliban leaders wouldn't seriously participate in peace talks until they felt like they had lost the battlefield momentum and no longer had the possibility of defeating the U.S.-led coalition.
With the Obama administration's surge of 30,000 reinforcements now complete, U.S. officials say their stepped-up military operations against the Taliban throughout the country are leading some mid- and high- level militant leaders to rethink their dedication to the fight and signal a willingness to potentially reintegrate back into Afghan society.
Spokespeople for the Taliban have been publicly noncommittal about the prospect of serious peace talks, with several indicating that they would only be amenable to negotiations if the U.S.-led coalition agreed beforehand to a strict timetable for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Representatives of the armed group have also refused to say whether they would accept the legitimacy of the Karzai government and the expanded role of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The diplomatic maneuverings come amid an unusually bloody period for U.S. and NATO troops. The American-led military alliance said that three troops were killed in a roadside bombing in western Afghanistan earlier today, one day after six troops died in a series of attacks elsewhere in the country. ISAF has lost at least 33 troops so far this month, according to the website icasualties.org, pushing the coalition death toll for the year to a record 597.
Still, the Afghan officials cautioned that it is far too soon to know where the talks will lead or how successful they will be in bringing an end to Afghanistan's endemic violence.
"There might be some contacts, but that doesn't mean the contacts will be successful," Stanekzai said.
This article appears in the October 14, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.