Amid wider war, talk of talks

King is a Times staff writer.

The Afghan war is at its highest pitch since it began seven years ago, growing daily in scope and savagery. Yet on both sides of the conflict, the possibility of peace negotiations has gained sudden prominence.

Among Western and Afghan officials, analysts and tribal elders, field commanders and foot soldiers, the notion of talks with the Taliban, once dismissed out of hand, has recently become the subject of serious debate.

Both sides acknowledge that there are enormous impediments. Each camp has staked out negotiating positions that are anathema to the other. Neither side professes the slightest trust in the other’s word. Each side claims not only a battlefield edge, but insists that it is winning the war for public support.


But whether they are willing to admit it publicly, both sides have powerful incentives for turning to negotiations rather than pushing ahead with a grinding war of attrition. Would-be mediators have emerged, preliminary contacts have taken place, and more indirect talks are likely soon.

All around, a sense of battle fatigue is undeniable.

“The most important consideration is the feelings of the Afghan people,” said Humayun Hamidzada, a senior aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “And the fact is that they are sick and tired of war.”

A major poll released Tuesday by the Asia Foundation found that Afghans are growing more pessimistic about their future. Large swaths of the country are under Taliban control. Travel by road between major cities is a life-threatening gamble. Here in the capital, where three Westerners were gunned down last week, abductions and attacks are becoming commonplace.

Karzai has been the strongest proponent of reconciliation, at times alarming his U.S. patrons with his appeals to the insurgents. But some ex-warlords who bear the scars of their own battles against the Taliban also support broad-based talks. A number of the movement’s former adherents believe there is room for negotiation, as do tribal leaders who called for talks after a binational jirga, or traditional assembly, that ended Tuesday in the Pakistani capital.

The insurgency in Afghanistan, which is made up of many disparate factions, has serious internal disagreements over discourse with the enemy. Western allies, as well, appear divided.

“No one wants to be seen as tipping their own hand,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for his government. “So whenever there is some suggestion of readiness to talk expressed from any particular quarter, there’s also a backlash.”

The departing British commander in Afghanistan, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, declared this month that the war could not be won militarily, suggesting that reconciliation was the only route to peace. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, the American commander of NATO forces in the country, responded by criticizing what he called defeatist attitudes.

Taliban spokesmen also disparaged the idea of peace talks, even though contacts took place last month in Saudi Arabia between Afghan representatives and several ex-Taliban who remain close to the austere Islamic movement. More such talks are expected soon.

Western and Afghan officials say there are signs of discord between ideological hard-liners who identify with Al Qaeda and so-called small-t Taliban -- native Afghans who do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of an overarching jihad, or holy war, against the West.

“You can talk to some foot soldiers, even to some commanders,” said Khaleeq Ahmad, a former senior aide to Karzai. “But the ones who are out there beheading people, you can’t talk to them. So where does that leave you?”

Among longtime observers, there is disagreement over whether so-called local Taliban can be separated from more radical, Al Qaeda-influenced factions.

Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, a former Taliban foreign minister who took part in the Saudi Arabia talks, told the Reuters news agency this month that “Al Qaeda will not be allowed to create an obstacle. . . . It is the right of Afghans to negotiate for peace.”

But Waheed Muzhda, a senior Taliban official when the movement was in power who is now a researcher in Kabul, said Westerners would be disappointed if they sought to drive a wedge between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

“You cannot separate the two,” he said. “The Taliban didn’t give up Osama bin Laden, under the greatest possible pressure. Why would they break from Al Qaeda now?”

Hamidzada reiterated that Karzai was willing to talk to fugitive leaders of the insurgency -- even those with a U.S. bounty on their heads.

“The president is willing to talk with anyone, anywhere, even Mullah Omar,” he said, referring to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban movement’s self-described “emir” who sheltered Bin Laden.

Critics within Karzai’s administration believe certain figures in the insurgency should remain blacklisted. But others insist that times have changed, and so should the policy.

“I fought against them, but that is not the way to solve the problem now,” said Taj Mohammed Mujahid, a former warlord who is now a lawmaker. “It is time to talk.”

Mujahid said any talks that did not eventually involve Omar and another key insurgent commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is allied with the Taliban, would be meaningless. “They are the ones in charge,” he said.

Still, Omar and Hekmatyar do not control all factions in the field. The insurgency is intertwined with criminal gangs, drug lords, arms smugglers and local militia chieftains.

And some prominent commanders with a large following in Pakistan, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, are thought by some Western intelligence officials to answer to Pakistan’s spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.

Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military superiority over the Taliban is unquestioned, some observers believe the insurgents will seek to strengthen their hand in negotiations by scoring whatever high-profile victories they now can. They managed to down a U.S. helicopter this week, although the crew survived and the craft was recovered.

“They have got some important advantages lately, like more powerful explosives for IEDs, which have been inflicting a lot of casualties on the foreigners,” Muzhda said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “It’s like the lesson learned from the time of the Russians: You can kill a bear with a thousand small injuries.”

Recruitment for insurgent groups has grown easier in Afghanistan as attention shifts away from the conflict in Iraq, he said. “All across the Muslim world, they are saying now: ‘If you want to join the jihad, go to Afghanistan,’ ” Muzhda said.

Western military officials said such talk amounts to little more than bravado, disguising a bedrock recognition on the insurgents’ part that it is virtually impossible for them to prevail militarily against more than 65,000 coalition troops, whose numbers are scheduled to grow in coming months.

“We are a very strong military, and the enemy knows this,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the chief spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

Among Afghans, there is widespread disillusionment with the Karzai government, but also growing revulsion over brutal acts by the Taliban.

This month, insurgents dragged more than two dozen young men off a bus and executed them, some by beheading. Days later, their home village rose up in a rare public protest. More than 1,000 people chanted “Death to the Taliban!”

Officials in the southern province of Helmand said this month that insurgents had gouged out a farmer’s eyes in front of his wife and seven children, apparently suspecting him of aiding the government or Western forces.

“All this butchery, for what?” asked Kabul fruit seller Jamal Khan. “What does this gain for our country?”

U.S. officials have said little about the Karzai government’s peace overtures other than that any talks must take place only with insurgents who accept the Afghan Constitution and are willing to lay down their arms.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has suggested publicly that some form of negotiated settlement is possible, if not inevitable.

“There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ‘ultimately,’ reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this,” Gates told NATO defense ministers in Budapest, Hungary, this month. “That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.”