Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, has lifted the veil of secrecy over Washington’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, saying the US has made “preliminary” contacts with the group.
Mr Gates’ comments on Sunday confirm what had been widely rumoured in Kabul: that the US is seeking to engage directly in talks with the Taliban, alongside parallel attempts by the government of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan‘s president, to foster dialogue.
“There’s been outreach on the part of a number of countries, including the United States,” Mr Gates told CNN. “I would say that these contacts are very preliminary at this point.”
In the first official confirmation of Washington’s involvement in talks, Mr Karzai announced in a speech in Kabul at the weekend that the US was in contact with insurgents.
The Obama administration has shifted more firmly in favour of negotiations as the war drags into its 10th year but the obstacles to talks remain huge.
Mr Gates, who steps down this month, said it would be hard to identify credible interlocutors who could speak for Taliban leaders, many of whom are based in Pakistan. Last year Nato flew a supposed high-level Taliban commander to Kabul, only to discover he was an imposter.
“These are contacts about contacts, trying to figure out whether the people willing to talk on the Taliban side represent anyone other than themselves,” said Bruce Riedel, who advised the Obama administration on Afghanistan.
Reports of secret meetings between US officials and the Taliban have been filtering out since the start of the year but the details remain vague. Diplomats in Kabul warn that any substantive negotiations remain far over the horizon.
There are wider questions, too, about whether Pakistan’s military, whose co-operation would be vital to delivering Taliban commanders on its territory, is ready to join such an initiative. Pakistan’s army is smarting from the humiliation visited upon it by last month’s US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in an army town outside Islamabad. Washington hopes, however, that battlefield pressure brought by last year’s surge of troops into Afghanistan will encourage insurgents to talk.
“My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter,” Mr Gates said.
“I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure and begin to believe that they can’t win before they’re willing to have a serious conversation.”
Mr Riedel said the US remained wary about the value of talks, especially as recent Taliban statements bemoaned the death of Osama bin Laden.
Many in Afghanistan are sceptical, too, pointing to the rapid spread of Taliban activity into the north of the country and the movement’s progress in setting up shadow governments in areas it controls.
Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, argues that the stepped-up raids on Taliban commanders ordered by General David Petraeus, the outgoing top Nato and US commander in Afghanistan, may hinder talks as younger more radical fighters rises through the ranks.
“Despite the significant number of casualties the Taliban have suffered, including among commanders, there is no sign that their momentum has been stopped,” he wrote last month. “Instead, their geographic reach, ethnic inclusiveness and potential for intimidation seem to be growing.”
The Taliban, having demonstrated its resilience, may be inclined to drive a harder bargain in any discussions, conscious that western resolve is weakening. The Obama administration is due to start withdrawing some of last year’s surge of 30,000 troops in July, ahead of an eventual handover to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
Obvious sticking points in negotiations include the Taliban’s insistence on the immediate withdrawal of the 140,000-strong Nato force in Afghanistan and its likely resistance to plans by the US to maintain bases beyond 2014. Some Afghans fear a deal between Taliban commanders and Mr Karzai’s government could only amount to a “thieves’ pact” to carve up state power, while failing to tackle the root causes of the conflict.
Mr Karzai made his announcement shortly before suicide bombers stormed a police station near the presidential palace in Kabul on Saturday, killing nine people in the worst attack in the capital for a year.
Western powers, increasingly weary of the war, have placed growing faith in the idea of peace talks to guarantee a measure of stability in Afghanistan when Nato leaves, in spite of the immense obstacles in reconciling the warring sides.
In the hope of promoting dialogue, the United Nations Security Council decided last week to treat al-Qaeda and the Taliban separately when applying UN sanctions on individuals.
The move aims to make it easier to foster negotiations with the Taliban by recognising the movement’s agenda is focused on winning power in Afghanistan, as distinct from al-Qaeda’s ambitions to wage a global jihad against the west.