The top U.N. official in Afghanistan called Sunday for talks with Taliban leaders at the highest level, another indication that parts of the international community are reaching out to the top echelons of the radical Islamist movement.
Kai Eide did not name Taliban leader Mullah Omar in his call for negotiations, but he dismissed plans that call for reaching out to only some militant commanders.
"If you want relevant results, you have to talk to those who are relevant. If you want important results, you have to talk to those who are important. If you only have a partial reconciliation process, you will have partial results," said Eide, a Norwegian diplomat who heads the United Nations mission to Afghanistan.
While the need for talks with the Taliban is recognized across the international community, the conditions attached to such proposals — and the timing of the talks — are a bone of contention.
President Hamid Karzai, facing a re-election challenge later this month, has repeatedly called for talks with Taliban leaders on condition that the militants accept Afghanistan's constitution. Karzai has even personally guaranteed safe passage for Omar if he attends such talks.
Omar, who is believed to be hiding out in Pakistan, has publicly dismissed the overtures, calling Karzai an American puppet and saying no talks can happen while foreign troops are in the country.
But behind the public posturing, several Gulf countries are working on sketching out the contours of a political process that could eventually bring an end to the expanding conflict. The war is claiming a record number of lives among U.S. and NATO troops and Afghan civilians nearly eight years after the U.S. invaded the country and ousted the Taliban from power.
The Taliban government — led by Omar — was sheltering Osama bin Laden as he plotted the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Eide's remarks follow calls made last week by David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, for talks with regular Taliban fighters.
Miliband said that while hard-line fundamentalist commanders committed to a global jihad must be pursued relentlessly, ordinary rank-and-file Taliban should be given the opportunity "to leave the path of confrontation with the government."
He said Afghanistan's government must develop "a political strategy for dealing with the insurgency through reintegration and reconciliation" and "effective grass-roots initiatives to offer an alternative to fight or flight to the foot soldiers of the insurgency."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington agrees with the British analysis of the way forward.
Eide said that his approach is more comprehensive.
"If you do want a comprehensive peace process, it is not enough to talk to the commanders on the ground," Eide said. "It is a political process, and I think you also have to approach the more political structures of the insurgency movement," he said without naming any insurgent leaders.