KABUL // The United States has initiated peace talks with the Taliban, the US secretary of defence confirmed on Sunday in comments that have launched concerns in Afghanistan over how the Islamists' return could affect the war-ravaged country.
"We have said all along that a political outcome is the way most of the wars end," Robert Gates said. It was the first time an American official has publicly admitted the US government is reaching out to Taliban figures in efforts to end the now 10-year-long war in Afghanistan. Mr Gates cautioned that "real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make substantive headway until at least this winter".
Not everyone in Afghanistan sees negotiations with the Taliban as the path to peace.
The idea of negotiating with the Taliban emerged over the past year as an acceptable way for the US to wrap up the conflict in Afghanistan. This approach gained particular traction among American politicians after the death of Osama bin Laden last month.
Reports of high-level talks between US and Taliban officials surfaced several times over the past year, but few details were leaked. Taliban leadership have consistently denied the recent US claims that negotiations are taking place. Approximately 150,000 US and Nato troops are in Afghanistan battling a Taliban-led insurgency against the Afghan government.
Observers believe any political settlement would probably entail a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. Others say the Taliban may be rewarded with semi-autonomy in wide swaths of Pashtun-held territory in eastern and southern provinces.
Critics of the potential power-sharing pact are worried a deal would only launch another bloody domestic conflict.
Sofara Ail Al Khani. a member of the Hazara ethnic group, a largely Shiite minority that suffered under the Taliban's extremist rule from 1996 to 2001, said: "If the foreigners make their own decisions about making peace with the Taliban, it will only be for short-term gains.
"It will be good for the Americans and good for the Taliban, but in the long term it will destroy Afghanistan," she said.
Many groups that were victimised by the Taliban, including Afghan women, who were barred from working or attending school, worry they will lose the social and political rights they gained after the Taliban were toppled by US forces in 2001.
Other factions, such as ethnic-based militias or tribal warlords who rose to power with US support simply for their anti-Taliban stance, say they are still ready to battle the mostly Pashtun Taliban for both territory and influence.
Approximately 12.5 million, or 42 per cent, of Afghanistan's 29 million people are Pashtun. The group has historically held high positions of power in Afghanistan's respective governments, including having ruled the country from its one-time capital in Pashtun-dominated Kandahar.
Hafizullah, the commander of an ethnic Uzbek militia in the northern province of Kunduz, said: "If the Taliban is given power in the government, they will do what they want. Their ideology is too strict."
Afghanistan's north is marred by ethnic tensions left over from the Taliban-led massacres and subsequent reprisal violence that rocked the province in the last years of the Taliban regime.
"If they say they will give up their views, and come peacefully, and then trick us, we will fight them. We have weapons, and we are ready to fight them," Hafizullah said.
Other Afghan mujahideen commanders, including those who fought the Taliban as they battled for control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, feel that ceding power to the Taliban means accepting de-facto Pakistani rule over the country.
Pakistan is widely suspected to be supporting the Taliban both financially and militarily. The movement's leaders and fighters often taking refuge in Pakistan's lawless border regions.
Sher Pacha, a former mujahideen commander in the Panjsher Valley, an area famous for its resistance to the Taliban, said: "The main concern of the mujahideen is that to this day they maintain their strong ties to Pakistan.
"If the Taliban continue this, and come to the table with the same agenda, there will not be peace. We will lock horns with them, like we did before," Sher Pacha said.
While severe punishments for minor crimes are currently meted out in Afghan villages under Taliban control, including the stoning of couples accused of adultery, there are indications the movement is evolving and, in some cases, already co-operating with the government.
In the volatile eastern province of Kunar, a Taliban stronghold, locals speak of Taliban fighters protecting government-run schools in the mountainous and remote Wata Pur district. According to Roohullah, a Kunar-based Afghan journalist, the Taliban make sure the teachers come to class, and the schools are open.
"It's really amazing," he said.