Reports of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban last month raised eyebrows in several world capitals. It turns out there were no formal negotiations, but there are signs that both sides are more interested in peace talks than ever before.
Fazl Hadi Shinwari, Afghanistan's senior cleric who advises President Hamid Karzai on religious and tribal affairs, has taken on a more pressing job these days — that of conduit between the Afghan leader and the Taliban.
Last month during a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Shinwari led an Afghan delegation to a dinner hosted by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Shinwari and others who were at the dinner insist there were no negotiations. They say there couldn't have been any talks because no current Taliban leaders were in attendance — only former Taliban officials attended.
But Shinwari says he did deliver a petition to the Saudi king asking that he broker peace talks between the warring sides.
"With or without the Saudis' help," Shinwari says, "the Afghan government and Taliban have no choice but to talk to each other, given the rising death toll and devastation on both sides."
He says in the past two months, he has been on the phone with senior Taliban leaders like Mullah Baradar, who is second only to the head of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
"They say they don't want the country to be destroyed," Shinwari says. "They've even sent me the passports of two of their representatives. They're asking that we get visas for them and two government representatives so they can hold talks in Dubai."
Shinwari says Karzai and his European partners are on board with the proposed meeting, but he adds that Karzai has made clear that it won't happen unless the Americans agree to it.
A Karzai spokesman and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment.
'A Brothers' War'
But in a recent interview, Christopher Dell, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy, said negotiations could play a role in resolving this conflict.
"It's a brothers' war, and the brothers have to come to terms with each other," Dell says.
He says there are conditions. For one, the Taliban must lay down arms and accept the Afghan government. Secondly, talks must not hinge on power-sharing or ceding territory to the Taliban.
Dell also says anyone who is linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or who otherwise is on America's "Most Wanted" list — like Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, insurgent leaders, former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — should not take part.
"We would have a hard time coming to terms with any negotiations that included any of those people," Dell says.
Such pre-conditions are unacceptable to the Taliban, which have their own conditions that are unacceptable to the Kabul government and the West.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid says for one thing, all foreign troops have to leave the country before there can be any talks. He suggests that the real reason there have been no talks is that the Americans haven't wanted them.
That view is shared by the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Guantanamo detainee and one of the people who attended last month's dinner in Mecca.
Signs The U.S. Is Softening
Zaeef says there are signs the Americans are softening. He points to recent comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the U.S. being prepared to reconcile with the Taliban.
"There is a way for the government to talk to the Taliban — not officially, but they are able to talk with the Taliban through some Islamic scholars, through some people, and I think this will happen," Zaeef says.
Others, like Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst in Kabul for the International Crisis Group, say a lot more than good will is necessary for any talks to be meaningful.
"The solution here is ultimately a political one," Nathan says. "The military are not going to shoot the last Talib and leave here. However, I think there's been a very naive portrayal of what a political solution would, could and should involve. This is not going to be sitting around a long table with Mullah Omar at one end, Karzai at the other and — I don't know — the U.N. or someone in the middle. It's not going to look anything like that."
Nathan says Afghanistan's neighbors would have to be part of any negotiations. But she adds that talk of a peace deal may be premature in any event. She says the Afghan government would have more success curbing the insurgency by doing a better job for its citizens and improving the economy.
That way, she says, people wouldn't feel compelled to join the insurgents in the first place.