NATO has provided safe passage for top Taliban leaders to travel to Kabul for face-to-face negotiations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, a senior alliance official said Wednesday.
The official's account was the most detailed yet of the U.S. and NATO role in the clandestine talks, aimed at bringing an end to the 9-year-old war. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the subject publicly.
The Afghan government has previously acknowledged that it has been involved in reconciliation talks with the Taliban with some NATO help. But discussions between the two sides have been described as mostly informal and indirect message exchanges relying on mediators.
The Afghan Taliban denied the claim in a statement on its website on Wednesday. The group said the notion of talks with the enemy was "baseless propaganda" and that negotiations would be a "waste of time."
If the talks succeed, the Obama administration will have to decide whether to accept a deal struck between a government backed and funded by Washington and an enemy force with ties to al-Qaida.
The U.S and the NATO alliance are not mediating the talks, only helping to facilitate them, U.S. officials have said.
That position is unlikely to change, considering that some 140,000 NATO troops continue to fight the homegrown Islamist insurgency seeking to displace Karzai's secular government.
U.S. officials have said they hope the talks will become a "game changer" in the war. But there are many complicating factors, including what might be expected of the U.S.
Members of a newly formed Afghan peace council have said that Taliban officials are unwilling to engage in formal peace negotiations until the U.S. agrees to a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
"The Taliban public position is very clear: They are still saying in public that full withdrawal of foreign troops is a precondition for everything else _ and that is not going to happen," said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Holbrooke told reporters in Paris on Wednesday that the U.S. backs reconciliation so long as the Taliban officials involved renounce al-Qaida, lay down their arms and respect Afghan law.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a television interview broadcast Monday that his government has been talking to the Taliban as "countryman to countryman."
"Not as a regular official contact with the Taliban with a fixed address, but rather unofficial personal contacts have been going on for quite some time," Karzai told CNN's "Larry King Live."
In August, Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told reporters that "there have been some ways that we have facilitated some of the contact."
Flaherty reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.