LONDON (Reuters) - Senior leaders in the Afghan insurgency are showing increased interest in a reconciliation process meant to help end the war in Afghanistan, a senior foreign office official said on Friday.
She attributed this to an intensified military campaign by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.
“The number of expressions of interest, including from senior figures, is increasing,” the official, who declined to be named, told reporters.
She also noted that President Hamid Karzai had said he was willing to talk to anyone who was interested, a position she said was supported by the United States and Britain, who want reconciliation efforts to be led by Afghans.
She said requirements the insurgents renounce al Qaeda, give up violence and respect the Afghan constitution applied to a settlement rather than to the opening of talks.
“These are not preconditions for talks,” she said.
Pakistan, worried about an insurgency from Pakistani Taliban militants spreading deeper into its heartland, has been pushing for a political settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda to leave the region.
A senior Pakistani security official said last year Washington should identify “end conditions” in Afghanistan rather than setting preconditions for talks.
He suggested a process in which violence was brought down, insurgents renounced al Qaeda, and a consensus then negotiated on a future Afghan constitution.
However, the official said there was no intention right now to reduce the intensity of fighting in Afghanistan. “We would see military pressure as needing to continue.”
The Taliban have said publicly they will not negotiate until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
However, official sources from several countries have said Taliban leaders have shown an interest in talks a process which the British official said had gathered pace over the last six months or so.
That was despite the collapse last year of one strand of those talks, with a man who turned out to be an imposter.
“There is no doubt the number of feelers ... is going up,” she said. “Are sufficiently senior people part of those putting out feelers? I’d say ‘yes’” she added.
She cautioned, however, against expecting an early breakthrough in what she called a “young process” and said the Taliban should not be confused with a national liberation movement in the way reconciliation talks were framed.
Analysts say they believe there is a debate going on both within the U.S. administration and within the Taliban over how quickly to move on a process of reconciliation.
In a letter to U.S. troops this week, U.S. commander General David Petraeus said that, “there are numerous reports of unprecedented discord among the members of the Quetta shura, the Taliban senior leadership body.”
Officials expect the process of seeking a political settlement to gather pace this year ahead of a planned withdrawal of troops in 2014.
The British official also described as encouraging signs Pakistan and Afghanistan were working more closely together.
The two countries agreed on Thursday to create a joint body to support the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
After talks in Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Afghan counterpart, Zalmay Rasul, said they were writing a “new chapter” in ties — soured in the past by Afghan accusations of Pakistani support for the Taliban.
“There is a sea-change for the better, we are moving in the right direction, there is more confidence, there is more trust, there is more comfort,” Qureshi told reporters. “We need each other more than we need others.”
Rasul was in Islamabad for talks with Qureshi ahead of a trilateral meeting in Washington in February.
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony in Islamabad and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Matthew Jones