WASHINGTON – The U.S. is actively considering talks with elements of the Taliban, the armed Islamist group that once ruled Afghanistan and sheltered Al Qaeda, in a major policy shift that would have been unthinkable a few months ago.
Senior White House and military officials believe that engaging some levels of the Taliban — while excluding top leaders — could help reverse a pronounced downward spiral in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Both countries have been destabilized by a recent wave of violence.
The outreach is a draft recommendation in a classified White House assessment of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, according to senior Bush administration officials. The officials said that the recommendation calls for the talks to be led by the Afghan central government, but with the active participation of the U.S.
The idea is supported by Gen. David Petraeus, who will assume responsibility this week for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gen. Petraeus used a similar approach in Iraq, where a U.S. push to enlist Sunni tribes in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq helped sharply reduce the country's violence. Gen. Petraeus earlier this month publicly endorsed talks with less extreme Taliban elements.
The final White House recommendations, which could differ from the draft, are not expected until after next month's elections. The next administration wouldn't be compelled to implement them. But the support of Gen. Petraeus, the highly regarded incoming head of the U.S. Central Command, could help ensure that the policy is put in place regardless of who wins next month's elections.
The proposed policy appears to strike rare common ground with both presidential candidates. Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama has said he thinks talks with the Taliban should be considered and has advocated shifting more military forces to Afghanistan. Republican contender Sen. John McCain supports, as part of his strategy, reaching out to tribal leaders in an effort to separate "the reconcilable elements of the insurgency from the irreconcilable elements of the insurgency," Randy Scheunemann, the campaign's top foreign-policy adviser, said Monday.