U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Stephenson grimaces at the sound of outgoing shots during… (John Moore / Getty Images )
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The Afghan war is at its highest pitch since it began seven years ago, growing daily in scope and savagery. Yet on both sides of the conflict, the possibility of peace negotiations has gained sudden prominence.
Among Western and Afghan officials, analysts and tribal elders, field commanders and foot soldiers, the notion of talks with the Taliban, once dismissed out of hand, has recently become the subject of serious debate.
Both sides acknowledge that there are enormous impediments. Each camp has staked out negotiating positions that are anathema to the other. Neither side professes the slightest trust in the other's word. Each side claims not only a battlefield edge, but insists that it is winning the war for public support.
But whether they are willing to admit it publicly, both sides have powerful incentives for turning to negotiations rather than pushing ahead with a grinding war of attrition. Would-be mediators have emerged, preliminary contacts have taken place, and more indirect talks are likely soon.
All around, a sense of battle fatigue is undeniable.
"The most important consideration is the feelings of the Afghan people," said Humayun Hamidzada, a senior aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "And the fact is that they are sick and tired of war."
A major poll released Tuesday by the Asia Foundation found that Afghans are growing more pessimistic about their future. Large swaths of the country are under Taliban control. Travel by road between major cities is a life-threatening gamble. Here in the capital, where three Westerners were gunned down last week, abductions and attacks are becoming commonplace.
Karzai has been the strongest proponent of reconciliation, at times alarming his U.S. patrons with his appeals to the insurgents. But some ex-warlords who bear the scars of their own battles against the Taliban also support broad-based talks. A number of the movement's former adherents believe there is room for negotiation, as do tribal leaders who called for talks after a binational jirga, or traditional assembly, that ended Tuesday in the Pakistani capital.
The insurgency in Afghanistan, which is made up of many disparate factions, has serious internal disagreements over discourse with the enemy. Western allies, as well, appear divided.
"No one wants to be seen as tipping their own hand," said a Western diplomat in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for his government. "So whenever there is some suggestion of readiness to talk expressed from any particular quarter, there's also a backlash."
The departing British commander in Afghanistan, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, declared this month that the war could not be won militarily, suggesting that reconciliation was the only route to peace. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, the American commander of NATO forces in the country, responded by criticizing what he called defeatist attitudes.
Taliban spokesmen also disparaged the idea of peace talks, even though contacts took place last month in Saudi Arabia between Afghan representatives and several ex-Taliban who remain close to the austere Islamic movement. More such talks are expected soon.
Western and Afghan officials say there are signs of discord between ideological hard-liners who identify with Al Qaeda and so-called small-t Taliban -- native Afghans who do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of an overarching jihad, or holy war, against the West.
"You can talk to some foot soldiers, even to some commanders," said Khaleeq Ahmad, a former senior aide to Karzai. "But the ones who are out there beheading people, you can't talk to them. So where does that leave you?"
Among longtime observers, there is disagreement over whether so-called local Taliban can be separated from more radical, Al Qaeda-influenced factions.
Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, a former Taliban foreign minister who took part in the Saudi Arabia talks, told the Reuters news agency this month that "Al Qaeda will not be allowed to create an obstacle. . . . It is the right of Afghans to negotiate for peace."
But Waheed Muzhda, a senior Taliban official when the movement was in power who is now a researcher in Kabul, said Westerners would be disappointed if they sought to drive a wedge between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
"You cannot separate the two," he said. "The Taliban didn't give up Osama bin Laden, under the greatest possible pressure. Why would they break from Al Qaeda now?"
Hamidzada reiterated that Karzai was willing to talk to fugitive leaders of the insurgency -- even those with a U.S. bounty on their heads.
"The president is willing to talk with anyone, anywhere, even Mullah Omar," he said, referring to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban movement's self-described "emir" who sheltered Bin Laden.
Critics within Karzai's administration believe certain figures in the insurgency should remain blacklisted. But others insist that times have changed, and so should the policy.