Commanding Gen. David Petraeus confirmed Friday that coalition forces have allowed Taliban representatives to travel to Kabul for peace discussions with the Afghan government, but a Taliban spokesman said all such talk is only propaganda, designed to lower the morale of the movement's fighters.
U.S., Afghan and Taliban sources all declined to give details of the contacts, if they are taking place at all.
"There have been several very senior Taliban leaders who have reached out to the Afghan government at the highest levels, and also in some cases have reached out to other countries involved in Afghanistan," Petraeus told reporters at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
"These discussions can only be characterized as preliminary in nature," Petraeus said. "They certainly would not rise to the level of being called negotiations."
In Afghanistan, Taliban leaders have told followers that there are no official peace talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, an apparent move to persuade their rank-and-file to stay in the fight.
U.S. officials speaking anonymously say there have been preliminary discussions that date back a couple of months and involve mid- to senior-level Taliban but not top-level decision-makers.
Petraeus indicated that Taliban representatives had been given safe passage by coalition forces. It was not known if that included providing transport or other NATO facilities to support the talks.
One Taliban representative involved could be Mullah Abdul Kabir, the former Taliban governor of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. According to two Afghan sources with knowledge of the contacts, Kabir has reached out to Karzai through an intermediary. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they did not want to compromise their relations with the Taliban or international community.
The Taliban deny that any official representatives are engaged in such discussions and vow to fight until the Americans leave.
"Believe me, no official envoy came," said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan. Zaeef was imprisoned at Guantanamo but has resumed his contacts with the movement since his release in 2005.
The Taliban accused the U.S.-led NATO coalition of trying to weaken the spirit of insurgents, especially in the south where they are engaged in fierce fights against tens of thousands of NATO troops pushing deeper into areas long held by militants.
"We are fighting against Americans and we will continue it until the time the Americans leave this country," said Qari Yousef, the Taliban spokesman in southern Afghanistan. "The so-called Taliban who are talking to the government are not related to us. This is propaganda to lower the morale of the Taliban, but it will not work."
Amanullah Mujahid, a 31-year-old Taliban fighter who was reached by the AP in the Afghan province of Zabul, said that when he heard that the U.S. said Taliban leaders had been talking to the Karzai government, he and his fellow fighters were disheartened. "We didn't expect it and it hurt our morale," said Mujahid.
He said their spirits were lifted when the Taliban leadership sent a message to his commanders denying involvement in any talks.
"Now we know that NATO is just using such propaganda to divide us," he said.
A Taliban fighter in Ghazni province said that after news of the talks broke, the Taliban leadership council, the Quetta Shura, sent out a radio message saying "It is wrong. Nobody from the Taliban side is going to talks." The insurgent fighter spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears of retaliation.
But this is not the first time that Taliban militants may have been in touch with the Afghan government.
Meanwhile, Pakistani sources denied a report Friday in the Asia Times that Pakistan had released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader. Baradar was arrested in February in a joint raid with the CIA — a move some analysts believe was driven by Pakistan's desire to guarantee itself a seat at the negotiating table.
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.
Senior U.S. officials have long said they didn't expect the Taliban to talk peace as long as the militants believed they were winning, and at least some administration officials had been cool to peace feelers put forth by Karzai.
That changed publicly on Thursday, when U.S. Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed exploratory talks between the Afghan government and the militants.
Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, on Friday attributed an increase in contacts with individuals linked to the Taliban to the "tremendously increased military pressure" NATO and its Afghan allies were placing on the insurgents.
The new acceptance of reconciliation could be seen as an admission that the war is going badly. Or it may reflect the view of U.S. military commanders that NATO troops have damaged the insurgency following the surge of more than 30,000 U.S. forces ordered by President Barack Obama.
Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a coalition spokesman, denied that NATO's decision to speak openly about the talks was part of a communications strategy to break the will of the insurgent fighters. "They are trying to mitigate the fact that some of their leaders are indeed talking with the Afghans," he said.
Nader Nadery, an Afghan analyst who has traveled extensively in Taliban-controlled territory, said indications that high-level insurgents are engaged in negotiations could prompt junior commanders to join the peace process to reap the benefits of any concessions offered to the leadership.
"Certainly the talks would have a huge effect on the battlefield — not right away, but if the leadership decides to come and join, channeling of resources will stop," Nadery said. The effect would be gradual as word of peace talks involving senior Taliban seeps down to the village level where the bullets are flying, Nadery said.
Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said even if Petraeus thought that raising the prospect of peace negotiations could help him on the battlefield, it was not likely his sole reason for doing so.
"I think the primary reason he's doing it is that he recognizes that insurgencies almost always end in negotiated settlements," Biddle said. "And that's almost certainly the way this thing will come to an end."
Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government who does research on negotiations with the Taliban, said he did not think that insurgents would automatically oppose high-level talks with the government.
"The commanders that I've spoken to did not object to it in principle," he said. "Rather there was a skepticism — a real mistrust about Western intentions — and that view was that the West is not serious about genuine negotiations.
"From their perspective what they have seen is a military surge, increasing military pressure, attacks and raids and there is no doubt that they have been feeling that pressure."
Associated Press Writers Danica Kirka in London, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Robert Burns and Kimberly Dozier in Washington, Anne Gearan in Brussels and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.