U.S. officials see new evidence that Taliban leaders, under pressure from NATO and Afghan forces, are ready to talk about a settlement that might end the Afghanistan war.
The Obama administration's efforts earlier this year to negotiate with Taliban leaders largely failed due to differences between the group and Washington—and inside the Taliban's own ranks.
The last attempt at talks with the hard line Islamist group fizzled this spring, but the Obama administration signalled Tuesday it is ready to try again. The signal is the latest sign the White House is eager to end the decade-long war even faster than its own timeline to remove Western troops by the end of 2014.
"We're not abandoning Afghanistan...and the Taliban has taken notice," James Cunningham, the administration's nominee to take on the key post of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan.
For the first time in months, Taliban leaders are "signalling they are open to negotiations," Cunningham told the Senate panel handling his nomination.
Cunningham, now the deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, said the Taliban must end their alliances with terrorist groups like al Qaeda before Washington would ink any peace deal.
The group "faces a choice: leave terrorism...or face ever-more capable Afghan forces," Cunningham told the panel.
The Obama administration has not sounded so upbeat about the prospects of talks with the Taliban since the weeks immediately following President Barack Obama's May 1 speech in Afghanistan during which he announced his administration is seeking "a negotiated peace" with the group that ruled Afghanistan until Sept. 11.
At that time, Obama extended an olive branch to the group, saying U.S. forces would not "eradicate every vestige of the Taliban."
Cunningham's push for peace talks is the latest in a spate of signs in recent months of a stark contrast between White House officials and senior American military commanders, who talk bluntly about defeating remaining Taliban forces.
Some Obama administration officials and foreign policy-minded lawmakers now believe what happens in Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence officials say much of al Qaeda remaining core group is located, is more important for America than what happens in Afghanistan.
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, cautioned his fellow lawmakers to avoid calling for Washington to cut off all the billions in annual aid monies it sends Pakistan for its help in Afghanistan and in the war on al Qaeda.
Thanks in part to Pakistani cooperation since Sept. 11, 2001, "we're in the position of virtually eliminating al Qaeda as a threat," Richard Olson, the White House's nominee to become ambassador to Pakistan, told the panel.
Washington and Islamabad are slowly mending fences that were twisted by a series of events that included the brash American commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden and U.S. forces mistaken helicopter attack that killed nearly 30 Pakistani soldiers.
Another touchy subject between the two reluctant allies: Pakistan's refusal to take out the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-aligned extremist group that operates from Pakistan and regularly strikes U.S. and indigenous targets inside Afghanistan.
Olson and several senators called for Pakistani officials to do more.
The nominee also announced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is mulling whether to formally designate the Haqqani group as a terrorist entity, which would give Washington more tools to apply pressure to the organization and its most important members.
A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report urged U.S. officials to get "realistic about the Taliban, Haqqani network, and other insurgents." The groups "remain a relatively small set of forces, they are unpopular in many areas, and they have suffered serious tactical reversals," the think tank says.
"As in Vietnam, the insurgents can lose every major tactical engagement and still win control in some Pashtun areas once U.S. and [NATO] forces are gone," CSIS says. "Peace negotiations will remain an extension of war by other means, and by the time the current round of U.S. and allied force cuts are completed this fall, they will either have regained the political momentum in key areas in the east or south or have halted any Afghan and [NATO] gains."
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