Afghan troops guard Kabul airport

Members of the Afghan National Army stand guard near Kabul airport. With Afghans in charge of security, the nation's military commanders now have more leeway to negotiate with insurgents. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times / December 5, 2013)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Formal peace talks between Taliban insurgents and the central government may be at a dead end, but provisional peace negotiations are underway in the rugged and often unforgiving Afghan countryside.

In some remote districts, Afghan army and police commanders have agreed to cease-fires with local Taliban commanders, according to international coalition officials, diplomats and former top Afghan government advisors. Driven by tribal and sometimes family ties, these informal accommodations are viewed as a possible blueprint for a wider, more meaningful national peace deal after 12 years of war.

In many instances, former top Afghan government security advisors say, the Taliban is under intense pressure from tribes fed up with the militants' roadside bombings and intimidation of villagers. In other instances, local Afghan military commanders seek to buy time and immobilize the Taliban while receiving more training and equipment from U.S. military advisors.

Tribal authorities are central figures in negotiating the cease-fires, which can last for weeks or even months. Tribal elders often have ethnic or family ties both to local Taliban commanders and Afghan army officers. They are trusted by both sides, and can ensure that everyone abides by the cease-fires.

U.S. military commanders have long said that the grinding war in Afghanistan will not end with a battlefield victory. A negotiated peace settlement is the only solution, they say, and local cease-fires may — or may not — provide a path forward on the national level.

"We never wanted to see the Afghan security forces try to fight the Taliban to the last man," a senior coalition commander said in an interview. He said cease-fires may "in some cases be an indicator of things to come."

Local cease-fires have accelerated in recent months as the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, have taken over combat duties from U.S. and international troops. With Afghans now in the lead, they have more leeway to negotiate with insurgents.

"I think anything which involves Afghan military commanders making judgments of the situation that is presented to them has to be a positive thing," said British Army Brig. Neil Marshall, who directs Afghan security force training for the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

Marshall emphasized that ISAF does not get involved in cease-fires, or deal with the issue as part of its "advise, train and assist" mission. He said Afghan commanders "understand the human terrain" and make accommodations with insurgents aimed at protecting civilian lives and ensuring freedom of movement.

In a report to Congress last month, the Pentagon said "highly localized" cease-fires are most common in the Taliban-dominated south, particularly in the northern part of Helmand province. A former top advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai described other cease-fires in Khowst province near the Pakistani border.

"These accommodations are localized, often personality-driven and largely influenced by tribal dynamics," the Pentagon report says.

In some cases, cease-fires may reflect Afghan security force fear of "being isolated and overwhelmed by what they perceive as a superior insurgent force," the report says. In other instances, it says, "some local insurgent commanders may also be entering into agreements in recognition of ANSF strength and capability."

A year ago, an ISAF consultant predicted in a study that local cease-fires would become more common after foreign combat troops withdraw next year.

"Survival by all sides, including the insurgency, will drive this highly decentralized process," says the study, "Cease-Fire Toward 2015." The study notes that Islamic-sanctioned cease-fires date to 628: A peace treaty between the prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh tribe of Mecca allowed his followers to safely make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

"Cease-fires between local ANSF and [insurgents] should be permitted and perhaps at times encouraged, provided they do not relinquish our core moral and national security responsibilities," the ISAF study says.

It adds, "Deep uncertainties about the future will force all Afghans to resort to their historic practice of establishing a cease-fire to buy time and assess the new environment."

Although the cease-fires are informal, they are not considered entirely unofficial because "such agreements tend to be culturally binding for honor and other reasons," the study concludes.

Twelve years of war have worn down both insurgents and Afghan forces, with high casualties on both sides last summer, according to two former government advisors. The war has settled into a stalemate; the U.S.-backed national government controls Kabul and other major cities, and the Taliban operates shadow government systems and courts based on sharia, or Islamic law, in villages and the countryside, especially in the south and east.

"Both sides are weary and realize that at some point we have to reach an end game," said a Western diplomat in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "That's providing momentum for these local accommodations."

A former top security advisor to Karzai who still meets with the Afghan president said some cease-fires stabilized rural areas after tribal leaders confronted Taliban commanders who had arrived from elsewhere and intimidated villagers.