WASHINGTON -- Secret talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan have begun between representatives of the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, The Washington Post reported on its website Tuesday night.
Afghan and Arab sources cited by the Post said they believe for the first time that Taliban representatives are fully authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban organization based in Pakistan, and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, according to the newspaper. The sources requested anonymity to discuss the development.
Omar's representatives have shunned negotiations in the past, insisting that all foreign troops withdraw first. However, the Post reported that its sources said the Quetta Shura has begun to talk about a comprehensive agreement that would include participation of some Taliban figures in the government and the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops.
"They are very, very serious about finding a way out," one source close to the talks said of the Taliban, according to the Post.
Karzai long has said he will talk to insurgents if they renounce violence, sever ties to terrorists and embrace the Afghan constitution.
The Post reported that the half-dozen sources directly involved in or on the margins of the talks emphasized that they were preliminary in nature, even as the sources differed on how specific the talks have been. All expressed concern that any public description of the meetings would undercut them.
Taliban leadership knows "that they are going to be sidelined," the Post quoted a source as saying. "They know that more radical elements are being promoted within their rank and file outside their control ... All these things are making them absolutely sure that, regardless of [their success in] the war, they are not in a winning position."
The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, said last week that Taliban leaders have made overtures to reconcile with the Afghan government.
"There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and indeed have done that," Petraeus told reporters in Afghanistan.
Reconciling with Taliban leaders is being "pursued by the Afghan leadership at the very highest levels," Petraeus said.
The Afghan government last week also set up a 70-member peace council, formalizing efforts to reconcile with Taliban leaders and lure insurgent foot soldiers off the battlefield.
Waheed Omar, a spokesman for Karzai, denied that President Barack Obama's stated goal of beginning to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011, if conditions allow, spurred the Afghan government to set up the council or reach out to the Taliban.