LONDON/KABUL For the first time in the nine-year war in Afghanistan, all the main parties involved -- from the government to insurgents, from Washington to Pakistan, are seriously considering ways of trying to reach a peace deal.
Official sources from different countries interviewed by Reuters say current "talks about talks" are fragile, preliminary and liable to break down at any time.
"The outcome is not in sight at the moment," said one official involved in talks about Afghanistan, "but we can say that the political process has been set into motion."
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 -- are involved in informal talks on how to open a more structured peace process.
Significantly, non-U.S. sources say Washington has given a far higher level of endorsement to talks with insurgents -- held either by Afghans or through third parties -- than before.
"The thing that's changed this time round is the American knowledge of what is going on and an increased appetite from the actual insurgency to engage," said a U.N. source with knowledge of the talks.
"The Americans are not sure whether to call it endorsement or engagement," said one non-American official. "Nevertheless they are now convinced about the utility of engagement."
Washington has acknowledged the need for an eventual political settlement as a war increasingly unpopular at home drags into its tenth year.
On Thursday NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference on Thursday that the alliance was willing to facilitate talks -- although it was important to keep up military pressure on militants.
Despite the strength of the Taliban, who have a foothold in more of the country than any time since 2001, the U.S. focus is still on the reintegration of individual fighters and commanders, to try to split the insurgency rather than broader reconciliation or power-sharing, a said another non-U.S. official.
The sources, however, also speak of a parallel, lengthy and fluid reconciliation process of trying to agree the ground rules under which all Afghan factions could be brought together into peace talks with the help of regional players.
While Washington and Pakistan are -- at least in part -- working together on this, various other countries including the United Arab Emirates, were cited as possible mediators.
"It's a team effort," said another source with knowledge of the talks, adding there were mediators from Saudi, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a role was also being played by Turkey.
INSTABILITY IN PAKISTAN
Some sources speak of a greater willingness by Pakistan to compromise on finding a peace settlement in Afghanistan to end a war which is increasingly threatening its own stability.
Islamabad is currently accused of covertly backing some insurgents to counter the influence of India in its neighbor.
"We don't insist on a stable and friendly Afghanistan," said one Pakistani security official. "'Friendly' you can interpret in your own way. We have gone down to peace and stability."
One senior western official in Kabul also said there appeared to be a change in tone in conversations with Pakistan's military, unnerved by radicalization in the country's heartland Punjab.
That area is ethnically distinct from the restive tribal regions where most Afghan insurgents shelter, and had earlier been relatively peaceful.
That has forced its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to work more with other parties in trying to nudge insurgents -- many of whom use Pakistan as a safe base -- into talks.
One source close to the talks said it was clear Pakistan had the power to destroy the process if it wanted to, but equally Pakistan recognized it could not create a settlement on its own.
As for the insurgent leaders who publicly reject talks, President Barack Obama's commitment last December to start bringing some troops home in July 2011 has already gone some way to meeting their demand for a withdrawal of foreign troops.
Official sources say they could now perhaps be persuaded to accept a timeline for withdrawal. The details of this are likely to be a major issue of dispute, but Obama's commitment, combined with pressure from Pakistan and a fear that without a political settlement Afghanistan could descend into anther bitter civil war, is seen as underpinning a willingness to engage in talks.
"All three guerrilla groups (the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqanis and the HiG) have to come to the negotiating table," said one official. "Otherwise they will not qualify as stakeholders. They will continue to be seen as warlords."
Analysts and official sources caution that no one should expect an early result in a country which has seen more than three decades of war and many broken promises on all sides.
And the crucial question of how insurgent groups would sever ties with al Qaeda has yet to be resolved.
"At the moment it's talk about talks," said the U.N. source. "This is not a fast-moving process. Let's not over-egg it."
Yet despite the skepticism, analysts and official sources agree there has been a step-shift in recent months toward the idea involving insurgent leaders in a settlement in Afghanistan.
That has been highlighted by what non-U.S. sources see as a new willingness by Washington to consider including the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan's North Waziristan and seen as close to al Qaeda, in any eventual settlement.
Non-U.S. sources said that while Mullah Omar's Taliban remained strong in Kandahar and southern Afghanistan, the Haqqani network had been increasingly threatening Kabul, making both insurgent groups necessary to any settlement.
"The principle is whether you are ready to talk, and after much nudging, the Americans have accepted," said one official.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Phil Stewart in BRUSSELS, Bill Maclean in LONDON, Simon Cameron-Moore in ANKARA and Jonathan Burch in KABUL; Editing by David Fox)
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