Even as NATO military officials try to minimize public attention on their role in assisting the Afghan government's meetings with Taliban and insurgent leaders, there are growing indications the program is now part of official NATO and U.S. policy.
There is extreme reluctance to spell out exactly how troops are helping.
A top International Security Assistance Force military officer told CNN
Wednesday "this issue has gotten too much over-emphasis of our role."
The goal now is to draw a picture showing an Afghan government-led peace
process as the only hope for the Taliban and insurgent fighters looking for a
way to escape further bloodshed at the hands of the coalition.
Gen. David Petraeus has acknowledged that U.S. and NATO troops are
ensuring security for fighters and insurgent leaders who want to travel to meet
with government officials.
"Indeed, in certain respects, we do facilitate that," he told a London
audience last week, "given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest
of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way
to Kabul if ISAF were not willing and aware of it, and therefore allows it to
Inside ISAF, it is privately acknowledged by top officials that this has
included "safe passage," essentially promising not to attack or bomb convoys or
locations that may involve insurgents trying to contact the Karzai government.
But several top ISAF officials also caution that substantive progress has
not yet been made in getting Taliban and insurgent leaders to talk to the
government. As one indicator, British Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, head of the ISAF
reintegration effort, told CNN that safe passage events "are fairly rare
things, to be frank."
ISAF officials also indicate that they believe most of the insurgents
seeking to come back into Afghan life are likely for now to be affiliated with
the Quetta Shura in Pakistan, a loose organization sometimes affiliated with
Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Even as the talk is about Taliban safe passage, Petraeus' military
strategy includes significantly increasing ground and air attacks to pressure
the Taliban into believing they have no option but to come to the negotiating
ISAF officials say the current rate of strikes is about four to five
times what it was 18 months ago.
The top ISAF military officer said, for example, that in the south,
troops have hit a number of IED factories and heavily wired compounds that have
to be destroyed because no one can disarm them and people can't move through
In the past 90 days, he said, troops have killed 300 senior Taliban
leaders and 800 fighters, and detained 2,000.
But, like other officials, he cautioned that so far there is little real
momentum in the process of trying to make peace with the Taliban.