BRUSSELS NATO-led forces in Afghanistan are facilitating contacts between senior Taliban officials and the Afghan government, including allowing them safe passage for talks in Kabul, a senior NATO official said on Wednesday.
The disclosure reveals a greater Western role than previously acknowledged in Kabul's preliminary attempts to seek a political resolution to the 9-year-old war.
The official, who spoke to reporters in Brussels on condition of anonymity, cautioned that contacts were in their very early stages and could not be described as negotiations.
NATO allies including the United States have previously voiced their support for reconciliation efforts by President Hamid Karzai's government. The extent of any Western involvement in those contacts had been unclear.
"We have indeed facilitated to various degrees the contacts between these senior Taliban members and the highest levels of the Afghan government," the official said.
The official declined to offer specifics about the facilitating role of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, in Afghanistan.
But he noted the talks had taken place in Kabul, one of the more secure parts of Afghanistan and a risky location for top Taliban to approach without a nod from the NATO-led force.
"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 said.
Afghan and U.S. officials say a peace deal is still a distant possibility but it is one that is drawing increased attention ahead of U.S. plans to start withdrawing its nearly 100,000 forces from Afghanistan next July.
The Taliban officially deny any contacts with Kabul and spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid earlier on Wednesday called such claims "propaganda."
NO MILITARY SOLUTION
A senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Major General John Campbell, told reporters on Wednesday that NATO forces had halted Taliban momentum in eastern Afghanistan, the latest in a series of declarations trumpeting battlefield progress.
But the Taliban remain a potent fighting force as the war enters its 10th year and top officials acknowledge an eventual political settlement is the only way to resolve the conflict.
"The U.S. supports his (Karzai's) efforts to reach out," the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told reporters in Paris.
"There is no military solution to this war."
The comments came the same day that NATO officials in Brussels, including Mark Sedwill, NATO's civilian representative in Kabul, briefed envoys of the 47 countries contributing to the NATO-led mission.
Sedwill said efforts toward reconciliation with Taliban insurgents were unlikely to speed up the process of transferring responsibility for security to Afghan forces, which will allow for reductions in Western troop numbers.
"I don't think it's likely to have an impact on this timeline, unless of course it proceeds at such a pace and faster than we would currently expect that it reduces the threat from the insurgency dramatically," he told a news briefing.
The unnamed senior NATO official played down the level of the contacts.
"What President Karzai, his spokesman, has stated is accurate: that these are in the very preliminary stages of discussions," the official said.
"So you would not yet characterize this, by any means, as a negotiation. These are preliminary discussions."
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul, Nick Vinocur in Paris and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Charles Dick and Bill Trott)