The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has performed a significant U-turn in its quest to end the war in Afghanistan by backing reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The policy shift emerged after it was disclosed that U.S. officials had actively helped to secure senior Taliban safe passage to Kabul to meet members of President Hamid Karzai's government.
It marks a clear departure from previous U.S. policy -- as stated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates as recently as last month -- that high-level reconciliation talks would be premature.
Gates acknowledged that the priority had changed at a NATO meeting in Brussels on October 14, saying, "We've always acknowledged that reconciliation has to be a part of the solution ultimately in Afghanistan and we will do whatever we can to support that process."
He also admitted the United States was closely involved in contacts between Karzai's government and the Taliban.
"We are in very close consultations with President Karzai and the Afghan government, so we know what they're doing," Gates said. "They know what we're doing. They understand what our requirements are."Rise In Air Strikes
The talks follow a sharp rise in NATO air strikes against Taliban insurgents over the past four months. "The New York Times," citing U.S. Air Force officers, reported on October 15 that American pilots dropped 2,100 bombs on Taliban positions between June and September, a near-50 percent increase on the same period last year.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "We will do whatever we can."
The bombing campaign appears to be part of an attempt spearheaded by the commander of NATO forces, General David Patraeus, to force the Taliban into serious concessions before the Obama administration's provisional deadline to begin withdrawing U.S troops in mid-2011.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said many Taliban fighters were abandoning the battlefield and "reintegrating" into Afghan society.
"The reintegration aspect is accelerating. More and more of the fighters on the field are seeking a way out," Clinton said. "Many of them found themselves employed by the Taliban or related insurgents because it was a way to make a living. Our reports are that more of them are seeking to leave the battlefield behind."'Foreign Interference'
American support for the talks came as the head of Afghanistan's new High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president, said the outline of an agreement had already been reached in Turkmenistan with some members of the Taliban but that a final deal had been blocked by unspecified "foreign interference."
Now, senior Taliban figures are ready to negotiate, he said.
"I believe there are people among the Taliban who have a message that they want to talk. They are ready," he told a news conference in Kabul.
On October 15, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmud Qureshi, speaking in Brussels, said his country was willing to help the reconciliation talks.
RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, currently in Afghanistan, says U.S. support for the reconciliation process is a policy shift and reflects recognition on all sides that the conflict cannot be solved by military means alone.
"There was a somewhat artificial distinction between reintegration and reconciliation," Siddique says. "I think [the Americans] have now realized that any process that had any reasonable chances of succeeding would have to involve both processes simultaneously in a way that they complement each other.
"If you look at some of Obama's key statements in recent months, he has always said that he wants to withdraw from Afghanistan and that he wants a stable Afghanistan. There can't be a stable Afghanistan unless there is a settlement. And that settlement, of course, involves reconciliation among Afghans."written by Robert Tait, with agency reports