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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A former Afghan president who heads a new peace council said Thursday that he's convinced the Taliban are ready to negotiate peace.
Burhanuddin Rabbani told reporters in Kabul the Taliban have not completely rejected the idea of negotiating a nonmilitary resolution of the war.
"They have some conditions to start the negotiations process. It gives us hope that they want to talk and negotiate," Rabbani said.
"We are taking our first steps," he said. "I believe there are people among the Taliban that have a message that they want to talk. They are ready."
The Afghan government has acknowledged that it has been involved in reconciliation talks with the Taliban, but discussions between the two sides have been described as mostly informal and indirect message exchanges relying on mediators.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said any reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents has to be led by Afghans. But he told a press conference in Brussels Thursday that the U.S. is offering advice and has kept an ear on the initial talks.
Gates said reconciliation efforts may not bear fruit anytime soon, but he says the effort is worth making.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the military alliance is helping the Taliban meet with the Afghan government. Rasmussen said that when there are practical ways that the alliance can help, it will.
He did not give details, yet it was a sign that the U.S. and NATO are backing clandestine talks aimed at bringing an end to the 9-year-old war.
In Brussels on Wednesday, a senior NATO official confirmed that it has provided safe passage for top Taliban leaders to travel to Kabul for face-to-face negotiations with the Afghan government. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the subject publicly.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that she thinks it's "highly unlikely" that Taliban leaders, who refused to turn over Osama bin Laden in 2001, will ever reconcile. "But, you know, stranger things have happened in the history of war," she said on ABC's "Good Morning America" television program.
The Afghan Taliban, meanwhile, have denied having discussions. In a message posted on its website this week, the group said the notion of talks with the enemy was "baseless propaganda" and that negotiations would be a "waste of time."
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai who also spoke with reporters, confirmed the contacts that were conducted with coalition support.
"There are people who have had contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban," Stanekzai said, declining to identify the players. "The elders of this country, the clerics of this country — they can mediate to form a bridge."
He said those who want to join to the peace process must be provided safety and security.
"The comings and goings are continuing," he said. "We are now at the beginning steps of our work."
Stanekzai said the Afghan government was getting strong support for the peace process from the international community, but that negotiations with the Taliban must be led by Afghans.
On Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his country — where key Afghan insurgent leaders are believed to be based — would be part of the process.
"Look, nothing can happen without us because we are part of the solution. We are not part of the problem," Gilani said.
Stanekzai said he welcomes Pakistan's help in finding a peaceful resolution to the war, but that Afghanistan would not go through Pakistan to talk to the Taliban.