Washington: The Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have begun high-level talks over a negotiated end to the war in the country, the Washington Post said.
Citing unnamed Afghan and Arab sources, the Post said the talks are believed, for the first time, to involve representatives authorised by the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban group based in Pakistan, and Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.
"They are very, very serious about finding a way out," a source close to the talks told the Post, referring to the Taliban.
Omar and other Taliban leaders on both sides of the border have insisted for years that no peace talks were possible before foreign fighters had left Afghanistan.
But sources told the Post that the leadership knows "that they are going to be sidelined”, and was negotiating to ensure their positions were protected.
"They know that more radical elements are being promoted within their rank and file," the source said.
"All these things are making them absolutely sure that, regardless of [their success in] the war, they are not in a winning position."
The negotiations involve agreements to allow Taliban leaders positions in the Afghan government and the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, the newspaper said.
But the talks are believed to exclude representatives of the Haqqani group, which the Post said was the target of recently escalated US drone attacks.
US General David Petraeus, the commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, said last week that the Taliban was approaching the Afghan government and foreign forces with "overtures" about quitting the fight.
"There have already been 20 or so overtures from small groups around the country," he said, referring to a program aimed at reintegrating mid-level Taliban commanders and grassroots fighters back into Afghan society.
A Taliban spokesman dismissed Petraeus` comments as "completely baseless”, however, saying the insurgents would not "negotiate with foreign invaders or their puppet government”.
Petraeus also said NATO supported efforts by Karzai to open peace talks with the Taliban leadership, and in some cases had helped the process along.
"President Karzai has established very clear red lines for it, and in this case we support what it is the Afghan government is doing, and in some occasions facilitated as well," Petraeus said in an interview.
But European officials told the Post that US representatives had been lukewarm to the idea of negotiations until this summer, fearing the US domestic repercussions of talking to the Taliban.
That changed this summer, European sources said, when escalated combat in Afghanistan produced disappointing results and US public opposition to the war ramped up.