Secret high-level negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership aimed at ending the war have begun, diplomatic sources have revealed.
Meetings which included delegates of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's Pakistan-based governing body which is overseen by Mullah Mohammed Omar, are believed to have taken place in Dubai. The Taliban high command had previously rejected any political negotiations until Western forces had left Afghanistan.
Talks have also taken place in Kabul with “indirect representatives” of the insurgency. It remains unclear whether this is a parallel process to the one taking place in the United Arab Emirates. According to reports, Pakistani officials, led by former foreign minister Aftab Ahmed Shirpao, were present at meetings at the Serena Hotel in the Afghan capital.
The Dubai discussions are said to have centred on the conditions under which the Taliban would agree to call a ceasefire. They have dropped the demand that Western forces are fully withdrawn from Afghan soil before any peace talks can open but are insisting on an agreed timetable for the exit of Nato troops.
The extreme Islamist movement ran Afghanistan between 1996 and the US-led invasion in 2001 and was notorious for its hardline interpretation of Islam, banning such things as music and education for girls.
Human rights and women's groups have long feared a political settlement which would allow the Taliban back into power and potentially water down rights guaranteed under the constitution.
Military setbacks are thought to have influenced renewed US backing for the idea of negotiating an end to the conflict. The White House yesterday said that Barack Obama “supports” attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, but stressed its members must pledge to respect Afghan law and lay down their arms.
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said that the US was not directly involved in the talks. Clandestine meetings are, however, believed to have taken place between senior Taliban members and CIA officials, according to Pakistani officials.
Pakistan, which has been working to promote itself as an irreplaceable interlocutor with the Taliban, remains extremely wary of the Dubai process.
News of meetings in the UAE comes at a particularly fraught
time in relations between Pakistan and the West. On 30 September, three Pakistani soldiers were killed by missiles fired from Nato helicopters in what appeared to have been an accident.
The Pakistani authorities responded last week by shutting down the Khyber Pass, which is used by Nato supply convoys heading into Afghanistan. The closure has left hundreds of trucks bottlenecked at the one remaining route into Afghanistan from Pakistan.
Since the border closure, Nato convoys have been struck six times by militants. The most recent attack came yesterday morning when gunmen set fire to more than two dozen fuel tankers as they waited in a parking lot on the outskirts of Quetta.
Significantly, the most recent talks do not include the Haqqani network, which operates inside Afghanistan but is based in Pakistan and has strong links to the Pakistani spy agency the ISI.
The group has been targeted in American cross-border air attacks in recent weeks even though Pakistani officials have been pressing the Karzai government to open dialogue with the network.
Last week General David Petraeus, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said senior Taliban leaders had “sought to reach out” to the top level of the Karzai government.
The General, who is due to give an assessment of the conflict to President Obama in December, effectively laying out an exit timetable, added: “This is how you end these kind of insurgencies.”