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Is the Taliban really talking?

By Ali Arouzi, NBC News Correspondent

KABUL, Afghanistan – Talks aimed at ending the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan may be accelerating for the first time.

In recent weeks, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has stepped up efforts aimed at forging reconciliation between the Taliban insurgency and his government and U.S.-led NATO troops, forming a 70-member peace council to oversee formal negotiations. During a speech on Sept. 28, Karzai broke into tears about the future of his country, and urged his Taliban “compatriots” to lay down their arms.

His speech was one of the clearest signs yet that his government is willing to make a deal with the Taliban to end conflict here and start to rebuild the country.

According to NATO and Afghan officials, senior Taliban members have been granted safe passage to travel from remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to Kabul for talks.

But can the longtime foes really work together?



Strange bedfellows
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban envoy who is a member of the newly formed peace council, expressed concern over the challenges of the unlikely alliance. If all parties stick to prior terms, including blacklists and sanctions, a compromise may not be possible, he said.

Karzai and U.S officials demand that the Taliban renounce violence, cut ties to the al-Qaida network, and respect the Afghan constitution. Taliban commanders in turn demand all foreign troops leave Afghanistan before any negotiations even begin.

“In my personal view, with these kinds of preconditions it is not workable. It will create more obstacles,” Mujahid told Reuters.

Even getting Taliban leaders into a meeting seems like an insurmountable issue.

During a press conference Thursday, Qiyamul-deen Kashaf, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s High Peace and Reconciliation Committee, was asked to confirm whether NATO was helping transport Taliban leaders in and out of Pakistan.

Neither confirming nor denying the reports, Kashaf said disclosing any information about the complicated issue could jeopardize the process, and added that he couldn’t speak about it before Karzai does.

However, he did say, “It is important that we guarantee their safety . . . that all armed groups should feel safe to sit at a meeting” and partake in negotiations.

He also pointed out that during the Soviet invasion, all Afghans – including the Taliban – fought together against the U.S.S.R., and called the Taliban “our brothers.”

Top Taliban there?
But the level of participation by top Taliban officials is up for debate.

Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar Baradar, the Taliban’s second-in-command, was the Taliban's overall military commander until he was arrested in Karachi last February by Pakistani security forces, where many believed he was still under custody. On Thursday, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that Baradar and three senior lieutenants were released from Pakistan custody and had traveled to Afghanistan under NATO guard for the talks.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, did say during a recent talk at a defense think tank in London that there were "several ongoing initiatives" to try to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.

“In certain respects we do facilitate that, 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,” Petraeus said, adding, “if ISAF [NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan] were not willing and aware of it.”

Not so fast
But as with all things here in Afghanistan, there are conflicting reports.

The Afghan Taliban has denied that any discussions are taking place. In a message posted on their web site, the group said that the notion of talks with the enemy was baseless and that negotiations were a waste of time.

As for Baradar, the Taliban’s No. 2, there has been so much speculation on his whereabouts that no one is truly sure where he is.

“He is still in Pakistan but being treated very well and as a guest,” one senior Pakistani security official told NBC News.

Yet some Taliban sources have said that there were rumors of his release, and his family was waiting for him, but that he never showed up anywhere. Other NBC sources have said he was released from Pakistan custody, but had been told not to contact anyone. The Taliban Shura, the organization’s leadership, has been told not to contact him because he is wearing a chip and is spying for the U.S.

A few years ago, negotiations would have been unthinkable. The idea that talks may be on the horizon and that the Afghan government has made statements that they are willing to negotiate with the Taliban is a major milestone.

NBC News’ Carol Grisanti contributed to this report from Islamabad, Pakistan and Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan.