The already dim prospect of a negotiated political end to the Afghan war grew ever more remote yesterday, as a powerful Taliban leader rejected peace talks and the head of NATO said stepped-up military operations on the ground may be the only way to bring insurgents to the negotiating table.
Leaders of the alliance are to meet in Lisbon on Friday for a two-day summit that is expected to formally endorse the goal of handing off responsibility for security to the Afghan government, with the aim of completing the transfer by 2014.
But setting a fixed deadline will only play into the hands of the Taliban on the battlefield, said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, in a news conference in Brussels.
If the Taliban can be drawn into a reconciliation process, he added, "it's worthwhile to give it a chance."
In the meantime "I consider it of the utmost importance to continue our military operations because it is increasing the military pressure on the Taliban and Taliban leadership that has stimulated reconciliation talks," Mr. Rasmussen said.
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to have put out feelers to some Taliban commanders about a possible political settlement, neither diplomats nor Afghan officials in Europe attach much credence to recent reports that contacts are under way.
"Whatever is going on, and nobody really believes there is much going on, it doesn't really amount to a coherent political engagement," said a Western diplomat in London.
An Afghan diplomat, also speaking on background, echoed that view. "At this point, it's not likely that anyone in the Taliban is even free to say whether they feel they can talk about having talks," he said.
That point was driven home Monday in a statement issued by veteran hard-line Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, who is believed to be based in Pakistan. He dismissed the Afghan government as the corrupt "puppet" of foreign occupiers and said reports that the Taliban might negotiate with Mr. Karzai were "rumours … to throw dust in the eyes of the people."
He also accused the Afghan government and the NATO mission of turning the country toward decadence, what he called "aberrations of the youth and cultural and social deviation in the name of democracy."
Such attacks are standard fare for Taliban statements, but they underscore the ambivalence of Western governments about the possibility of reaching a peace deal with the Taliban that recognizes human rights and women's rights.
The statement also highlighted Mr. Karzai's awkward position as both a partner to the NATO war effort and as a politician who needs to show that he is his own man.
He is due to attend the NATO summit later this week as U.S. General David Petraeus outlines a plan for transferring control of Afghanistan, province by province or district by district, to Afghan forces over the next three or four years.
In the presence of dozens of Western leaders and United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Karzai is also expected to sign a long-term security partnership agreement with NATO.
But, in an interview with The Washington Post published on Sunday, he sought to distance himself from NATO and its approach in fighting the Taliban.
Afghan forces should take the lead role, he said, and foreign troops should confine themselves to their bases or to counterinsurgency operations along the porous border with Pakistan. It was time, he added, for NATO to lower its profile and reduce its forces.
Mr. Karzai's remarks reportedly angered Gen. Petraeus. But the head of NATO took a more benign view, describing them as an echo of the alliance's own goal to eventually play a supporting role to Afghan soldiers and police.
"Of course I can't say I agree with all that President Karzai has stated," Mr. Rasmussen said. "But we also have to accept he is the elected president of the country and he can express his views as he wishes."
With this report, Susan Sachs, a veteran reporter who has covered Iraq and the Middle East for the New York Times and others, starts her full-time assignment with the Globe and Mail covering the conflict in Afghanistan