By Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock
Thursday, October 14, 2010; A12
Momentum toward peace negotiations in Afghanistan appeared to grow Wednesday as a senior NATO official said the military alliance had "facilitated" contacts between senior Taliban members and the "highest levels of the Afghan government."
The official said NATO forces in Afghanistan were granting safe passage to Taliban leaders traveling to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
"It would be extremely difficult for a senior Taliban member to get to Kabul without being killed or captured if ISAF were not witting, and ISAF is witting," the official told reporters. ISAF is an acronym for the International Security Assistance Force, a coalition of troops from NATO members and other allies in Afghanistan. The official spoke in Brussels, where coalition members were being briefed on the war.
A group of about 70 prominent Afghans appointed by Karzai last week to head negotiations held its first formal meeting in Kabul. And the U.N. Security Council, voting to extend the coalition's mandate in Afghanistan for another year, urged "all Afghan parties and groups to engage constructively in peaceful political dialogue."
Most recent discussions with the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and in third countries, have been described as informal and non-specific. The senior NATO official, who requested anonymity in order to speak on a sensitive topic, provided no details of the contacts he described.
But after years of sporadic and inconclusive meetings, Afghan and Arab sources now dismiss the Taliban's public rejection of negotiations as posturing, and say that leading segments of the insurgency appear for the first time to be seriously exploring the possibility of a settlement.
The Obama administration is under increasing domestic pressure to end the costly war or show conclusive signs that its strategy is succeeding, and European allies have pressed the United States to be more open to negotiations. The administration has described itself as only an interested bystander to talks it has said must be led by Karzai's government.
U.S. and coalition demands for a settlement are the same as Karzai's: The Taliban must reject al-Qaeda, lay down its arms and declare allegiance to the Afghan constitution. Coalition officials have also said they insist on respect for "essential" human rights. The Taliban says publicly that there can be no peace until foreign military forces leave Afghanistan.
Peace council members said they still have no clear idea of their role in any negotiations. They acknowledged that contacts with the Taliban will continue outside the council, through Karzai's family or through Afghan intelligence officials, but said they hope to be more central to the process.
"Something is better than nothing," said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a council member and the Taliban's former representative to the United Nations. In an inaugural meeting last week, Karzai stressed to the council that it would be independent and that the government would support its decisions, three members said.
Some Afghans have criticized Karzai's choice of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani as chairman of the body. Ousted during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, Rabbani is considered a bitter foe of the group and an unlikely mediator.
But council members said they think that Karzai worries that reconciling with the largely Pashtun Taliban could antagonize former leaders of the Northern Alliance - composed primarily of northern ethnic groups whose U.S.-aided forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001 - and lead to civil war.
"There were a lot of protests" about Rabbani, Mujahid said. "But I think it is okay, because he is also a side of the problem, of the conflict."
Karzai, Mujahid said, did not want "another armed opposition to be created as a result of the reconciliation process."
Although many have applauded the prospect of negotiations, former Northern Alliance military and political leaders, including former senior government officials ousted by Karzai after they objected to negotiations, have grown increasingly uneasy over the prospect of substantive talks that could give the Taliban a role in the government.
Some coalition partners view these rumblings as ominous and in recent weeks have discussed how to avoid the mirror image of what happened in 2001. Although Pashtuns make up more than 40 percent of the Afghan population, they were left largely outside the Western-backed, post-Taliban power structure, leading to a sense of disenfranchisement that swelled Taliban ranks.
Whitlock reported from Brussels. Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.