The Obama administration on Thursday endorsed fragile Afghan efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban, backing off its prior stance that talks with the Taliban were premature until the war is all but won.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who only last month had said it was too soon for high-level reconciliation talks, struck a different chord at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
"Whenever opportunities arise that are worth exploring, I think we ought to take advantage of that," Gates said.
Senior U.S. officials have long said they didn't expect the Taliban to talk peace as long as the militants believed they were winning, and at least some administration officials had been cool to peace feelers put forth by President Hamid Karzai.
The new acceptance of reconciliation could be seen as an admission that the war is going badly. Or it may reflect the view of U.S. military commanders that NATO troops have damaged the insurgency following the surge of more than 30,000 U.S. forces ordered by President Barack Obama.
Some administration officials recently said stepped-up NATO operations, as well as U.S. drone attacks on militants across the border in Pakistan, have shaken the Taliban enough to coax them into negotiations.
Publicizing U.S. support for any peace talks also could be a sign that the administration is looking for ways to demonstrate a commitment to ending the war short of calling home large numbers of troops. The war has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 NATO troops, including at least 1,228 Americans. Gates spoke on a day that eight NATO service members were killed across Afghanistan.
There have been no formal negotiations yet between the Afghan government and the Taliban, only some contacts and signals, according to the Afghan government.
Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the country's newly formed peace council, said Thursday that the Taliban have not completely rejected a peaceful resolution of the war.
"They have some conditions to start the negotiations process," he told a news conference. "It gives us hope that they want to talk and negotiate."
Those conditions are believed to include U.S. first releasing Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and the U.N. removing scores of militants from its sanctions list.
A senior NATO official said that coalition forces are now allowing safe passage for top Taliban leaders to attend talks _ some of them in Kabul.
But Taliban representatives insisted Thursday they will not negotiate so long as foreign troops occupy their country, saying no one who speaks for the group is in talks with the Afghan government.
"Nobody is coming from the Taliban," spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We will not come. We don't believe in such a peace session. They are just saying these things to show the world that there is some positive movement in Afghanistan because they are ashamed that they're losing on the ground."
U.S. and NATO officials have argued that pulling the 140,000-strong international forces out of Afghanistan too early would embolden the Taliban.
But Obama wants to start to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July 2011, if conditions on the ground allow. It is believed that Obama's goal of drawing down troops by next summer has led Karzai and the Pakistanis to seek deals with the militants, calculating that coalition forces will not be in the country long enough to defeat them.
Although the Afghan people are weary after nine years of war, some oppose talks with the Taliban. Ethnic minorities and women's groups remain concerned that negotiations will open a path for the hardline fundamentalist group to regain power _ or exact painful concessions. The Taliban banned women from most jobs and education during their years in power.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was with Gates in Brussels, said that while Taliban foot soldiers were beginning to look for a way out, the much more complex question of a political settlement with insurgent leaders was just beginning.
She also said the U.S. continues to insist that, as part of any peace deal, the insurgents lay down their weapons, cut ties with al-Qaida and pledge to respect the Afghan constitution with its protections for women's rights.
"There are a lot of different strains to it that may or may not be legitimate or born out as producing any bona fide reconciliation," Clinton said.
"This will play out over a period of time," she said. "We're not yet ready to make any judgments about whether any of this will bear fruit."
She said it was highly unlikely that the top echelon of the Taliban, which refused to turn over Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, would ever reconcile.
But she added: "You know, stranger things have happened in the history of war," she said.
Gates said the U.S. was offering advice and keeping an ear on the budding peace process.
"It's basically a partnership as we go forward with this with clearly the Afghans in the lead," Gates said. "I think we're confident that we have access into this process and plenty of opportunities to make our concerns as well as our suggestions known."
Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it would be a mistake to conclude that negotiations would succeed.
"I see no evidence that makes the case that this is a turning point," Biddle said. "We know very little about what's being said and even less about whether anybody can delivery on what they're saying."
It's unclear whether other factions of the Taliban have been involved in the most recent discussions.
NATO forces have been putting particularly intense pressure on the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction with close ties to al-Qaida that launches attacks against international forces and plots attacks on the capital.
Another major militant group known as Hizb-i-Islami held reconciliation talks of its own with Karzai in the spring, but has not yet received a positive or negative response to a 15-point peace plan it presented to the Afghan government. The group is run by an ailing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, among the heroes of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. He earned a reviled reputation during the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet occupation.
Harun Zarghun, a spokesman for Hizb-i-Islami, told the AP that there was no hope of success for the Karzai government's peace initiative. He said the departure of foreign forces was a prerequisite to any reconciliation, arguing that the 70-member peace council was packed with pro-government individuals who had neither the power "nor courage to ask the aggressors to leave."
Gearan reported from Brussels. Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Robert Burns in Washington and Matt Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.