BRUSSELS U.S. and NATO leaders said on Thursday they were ready to help Afghan President Hamid Karzai pursue reconciliation with the Taliban, but cautioned that it was a complex process that may not bear fruit.
Speaking a day after a senior NATO official said the military alliance was already assisting Karzai's outreach to senior Taliban leaders, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington would do "whatever it takes" to get the peace process on track.
"We have always acknowledged that reconciliation has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan and we will do whatever we can to support this process," Gates told a news conference at a NATO meeting in Brussels.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged caution about reports of progress on the reconciliation front, calling it "a complex effort that is just beginning."
"There are a lot of different strains to it that may or may not be legitimate or borne out as any bona fide reconciliation," she said.
"We are not ready to make any judgment whether any of that would bear fruit."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Western military alliance, which now has about 150,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, was ready to facilitate talks with senior Taliban leaders.
"Our position is that if we can facilitate this process through practical assistance, then why not. If we get a request, then we are prepared to do that," Rasmussen said, although he added it would be important to keep up military pressure.
WESTERN CASUALTIES MOUNTING
Wednesday's disclosure that NATO has facilitated contacts between Kabul and Taliban figures revealed a greater Western role than previously acknowledged as Kabul seeks a political resolution to the war.
Seven foreign troops from the NATO-led force were killed in four separate attacks in Afghanistan on Thursday, NATO said, bringing to 13 the number of troops killed in the last two days. More than 2,000 foreign troops have died since the fighting started, more than half in the last two years.
While the NATO official did not disclose any details about the help provided, it did include safe passage for Taliban officials to Kabul.
Both the U.S. and NATO officials stressed that any reconciliation with the Taliban would require individuals to lay down their arms, cut links with terrorist groups and respect the Afghan constitution -- so called "red lines" designed to prevent a resurgence of the hardline Islamic group which ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001.
The Taliban have rejected such conditions and say they will not negotiate unless NATO troops leave Afghanistan.
Afghan and U.S. officials say a peace deal is still only a distant possibility, although the prospect is drawing increased attention ahead of U.S. plans to start withdrawing its nearly 100,000 troops from Afghanistan next July.
The Taliban deny any contacts with Kabul. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday called such claims "propaganda."
Nevertheless, officials indicate that for the first time in the war in Afghanistan, all the main parties involved including Karzai's government, insurgent groups, Washington and Islamabad, are seriously considering ways of trying to reach a peace deal.
The preliminary discussions involve all three main insurgent groups, the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani network and the Hizb-ul-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, official sources said.
(additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Justyna Pawlak, editing by David Brunnstrom and Myra MacDonald)