KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the past week, U.S. and Afghan officials have revealed tantalizing tidbits about talks with Taliban leaders, raising hopes for a peaceful resolution to a war in its 10th year.
"The international community, our neighbors and our people are marching toward it with full strength," President Hamid Karzai said in a speech Wednesday. "The rumors we are hearing from the Taliban and our other brothers say a lot of people are hopeful about this peace process."
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said peace talks with the Taliban are in an early stage but are picking up speed. No U.S. officials are directly involved in the preliminary talks, he said, although the U.S.-led NATO coalition has granted Taliban leaders safe passage to talks in Afghanistan.
But some coalition officials, Afghans and people familiar with insurgent leaders say contacts with militants are nothing new and have been overstated.
They also questioned how the United States could be serious about peace at a time when it is escalating attacks in southern Afghanistan and drone strikes on militants across the border in Pakistan.
"There have been contacts for years," said Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat and the United Nation's former envoy to Afghanistan. "My feeling is that this is a lot of spin that the war strategy is working — that things are moving forward more than they are."
Those with knowledge of the discussions say Karzai's government has been in contact with top-level insurgents.
Mark Sedwill, NATO's top civilian representative, said Wednesday that the Afghan government has opened channels of communication with some insurgent leaders.
"Some of these are significant members of the Taliban leadership," Sedwill said.
But he added: "It's not even yet talks about talks."
The Taliban denies that any of its representatives have been involved in talks, saying its leaders will not discuss peace with the government unless foreign troops first leave Afghanistan.
The Associated Press was unable to confirm independently a report in the New York Times that three members of the Taliban's leadership council, known as the Quetta shura, have taken part in preliminary discussions with the Afghan government.
Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former Afghan foreign minister and confidant of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, said the Taliban leadership has not agreed to negotiate.
"There is no trust line between the U.S. and international community and the Taliban," he said. "Because of this, the Taliban are not serious about talking."
U.S. officials have long said they didn't expect the Taliban to talk peace as long as the militants believed they were winning. That stance changed publicly last week when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed exploratory talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The top NATO commander, Gen. David Petraeus, even confirmed that coalition forces were providing safe passage to senior Taliban leaders who were talking to the Afghan government.