What's up when an American commander tells reporters, yeah, we're helping some of the enemy come across the lines to talk? Sounds like Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, is just being a nice guy for saying he's arranged safe conduct for some Taliban to come into Kabul to talk about peace.
But the Taliban leadership -- hiding in bunkers from an unprecedented wave of powerful U.S. air strikes and commando raids -- may well be thinking: We're taking a beating, and some of our guys -- not sure who Petraeus is talking about -- are talking to the enemy!
Leaks and rumors are swirling around what appear to be preliminary contacts between the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, with the U.S. command standing by to assist as appropriate.
The New York Times, quoting anonymous U.S. and Afghan officials, said Tuesday night that serious high-level talks are under way
, with some of the Taliban arriving from Pakistan in NATO aircraft. The high Taliban chieftain, Mullah Omar, however, has been cut out of the talks, the Times said, because he's considered too close to the Pakistanis who might try to scuttle these initiatives.
Meantime, U.S. and allied forces are pummeling the Taliban, with record numbers of armed drone and bomber sorties
against Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan rose from 400 in July to 500 in August to 700 in September, more than double the number in September a year ago, according to Air Forces Central Command.
And U.S. officials say strikes and raids by U.S. and allied commando teams are snatching or killing record numbers of Taliban battlefield commanders, and that conventional military operations are squeezing their supply lines.
But a glance at the organizational chart
of the Taliban -- with a central shura, or governing council, based in Quetta, Pakistan, and three regional shuras, 10 district committees and dozens of battlefield commanders -- makes you wonder about negotiations with "the Taliban.'' Thanks to U.S. technology, Taliban communications are either monitored or jammed, so it's likely not every Talib knows who is doing the talking with Kabul or what they are saying. That sounds like a perfect recipe for internal confusion and distrust. Which may be part of the maneuvering that's now becoming evident.
If the U.S. is hinting loudly that some Taliban are coming in to talk, the Taliban's propaganda line is to send raspberries in the direction of the talks.
In an interview posted on its website
Tuesday, Maulavi Abdul Kabir, a senior Taliban chief in eastern Afghanistan, said reports of Taliban peace feelers are "futile propaganda . . . fabrications . . . aimed at creating mistrust between the Muslims and the Mujahideen.'' He vowed the fight will continue against "the American invaders.''
"I think a lot of smoke's being blown here,'' said a senior analyst of the Taliban who asked not to be identified by name.
Bill Roggio, managing editor of Long War Journal
and a respected analyst of the Taliban and al Qaeda, has noted an unusual amount of counter-peace talks rhetoric on the Taliban Web site. For instance, the Taliban posted this statement Monday:
"The reconciliation propaganda launched by the Americans and the Kabul Puppet Administration is meaningless in the light of this hard fact that how can reconciliation be materialized in condition of presence of more than one hundred thousands foreign troops , being armed with motley of weapons , aircrafts, missiles, tanks and other warfare hardware?''
Roggio suspects that this kind of hard-line rhetoric is coming in response to reports of individual Taliban officials pursuing peace talks. "That type of news would certainly cause some questioning within the Taliban ranks,'' he said with some understatement.
Although the barriers to an actual peace agreement are high
, let's hope that these wisps of smoke do gather into concrete movement toward a settlement. But don't count on it. A NATO official recently told Pentagon reporters
that even though the Taliban were battered and demoralized in Helmand Province, and even though she expected that some low-level Taliban would accept amnesty, there hadn't been even one signal from any Taliban of a willingness to talk.