PARWAN, Afghanistan — The top American commander in Afghanistan said Monday that high-level Taliban leaders had reached out to senior Afghan government officials in the context of starting reconciliation discussions that could pave the way to end the fighting in Afghanistan.
For months, efforts at reconciliation have been stalled at every level, and this is the first explicit public suggestion that there is extensive behind-the-scenes contact between insurgents and the Afghan government.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, in a meeting with reporters after a tour of the largely United States-run detention facility here, where U.S. forces detain Afghans they suspect of supporting the insurgency, said the Taliban were making efforts to establish contact with senior members of the Afghan government.
“There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that,” Petraeus said.
The conditions of President Hamid Karzai “are very clear, very established, and, certainly, we support them as we did in Iraq, as the U.K. did in Northern Ireland; this is how you end these kinds of insurgencies,” Petraeus said, referring to the conditions among others that the Taliban respect the country’s Constitution and lay down arms.
He added that any strategy had to be comprehensive and also include traditional elements of counterinsurgency strategy, like training Afghan security forces, and also “coming to grips with the situation in which there are sanctuaries for the insurgents outside the borders of the country in which we are located, and it involves, in a sense, a war of words, of information.”
American support for the process is in part a recognition that “Oh, by the way, you are not going to kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency,” Petraeus said, underscoring the scale of Taliban activity.
The talks are continuous, according to people knowledgeable about them.
Petraeus’ embrace of talks comes at a difficult moment in the war and at a time when many politicians in the United States are searching for a way to bring the troops home as soon as possible. Popular support has ebbed amid a steady drumbeat of reports documenting the Taliban’s persistence despite the killing of large numbers.
Although on its face a peace deal with the Taliban appears to be a necessary ingredient for the withdrawal of international troops, a reconciliation with the insurgents is also so controversial among many Afghans that the United States is in a delicate position in supporting it. At this point, though, it seems there is an acknowledgment that it would not be possible to win against an insurgency of this scale and that a peace deal might be a major part of any exit strategy.