LONDON- The Afghan government on Thursday invited the Taliban to a peace council as its Western allies worked out plans to try to end the war in Afghanistan.
In an indication of the quickening pace of diplomacy, a U.N. official said members of the Taliban's leadership council had secretly met the United Nations representative for Afghanistan to discuss the possibility of laying down their arms.
The official, speaking as leaders and ministers from 60 nations convened in London to discuss Afghanistan, told Reuters members of the Taliban's Quetta Shura had met U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide on January 8 in Dubai.
They requested a meeting to talk about talks. They want protection, to be able to come out in public. They don't want to vanish into places like Bagram, the official said, referring to a detention center at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
The official said it was the first time such talks had taken place with members of the Taliban's top council, named after the Pakistani city of Quetta where Washington says it is based.
We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al Qaeda, or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the conference.
The United States and its allies would not be involved in the council, known as a loya jirga, and have said they want to leave it up to the Afghans to seek reconciliation.
At the same time, President Barack Obama is sending in 30,000 more troops to weaken the insurgency and convince the Taliban to accept a peace deal, which crucially would require them to sever ties with al Qaeda militants.
More than 110,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan, including some 70,000 Americans.
At the London conference, nations agreed that Afghan forces should aim to take the lead role in providing security in a
number of provinces by late 2010 or early 2011, and to set up a fund to buy off Taliban foot soldiers.
But the real shift in mood highlighted by the meeting was toward reaching a settlement through what is likely to be a perilous process of reconciliation to end a war which neither the Taliban nor the West can win by military means alone.
You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency or so marginalizes the remaining insurgents that it doesn't pose a threat to the stability and security of the people, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
The war, originally launched to deny al Qaeda militants a haven under the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks, has entered its ninth year with public support in the United States and its NATO allies waning as casualties rise.
An Afghan government spokesman said the Taliban would be asked to take part in the loya jirga, expected to be held early this year.
We wish them to come, spokesman Hamid Elmi told Reuters.
The Taliban have been stressing in recent website statements that they pose no threat to the West, in what some see as a signal of a greater willingness to break with al Qaeda -- a key requirement of Western governments.
They are tired of fighting. Despite a lot of the bravado they don't have the capacity to take the country, a UN diplomat said. So in the long run they need a route out themselves.
The West's attitude to the Afghan Taliban also appears to be softening, although it remains anxious about their human rights record and treatment of women before they were ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Diplomats believe Western governments are now more open to including the Taliban leadership in any eventual settlement -- though there would be no direct contacts in a process so steeped in mistrust on both sides that it could be easily derailed.
Elaborating on the Dubai meeting, the U.N. official said there had been no follow-up on the talks yet but added: We've had the initial approach and we are hoping that the Afghan government will now follow up and capitalize on it.
The Dubai meeting was at a higher level than earlier known talks which took place in Saudi Arabia between former Taliban officials and representatives of the Afghan government.
Karzai also called on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which along with the United Arab Emirates were the only countries to recognize the Taliban before they were ousted in 2001, to help bring peace to Afghanistan.