KABUL, Afghanistan - Talks to end the war in Afghanistan involve extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group's leadership, who are secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops, officials here say.
The discussions, some of which have taken place in Kabul, are unfolding between the inner circle of President Hamid Karzai and members of the Quetta shura, the leadership group that oversees the Taliban war effort inside Afghanistan. Afghan leaders have also held discussions with leaders of the Haqqani network, considered to be one of the most hard-line guerrilla factions fighting here; and members of the Peshawar shura, whose fighters are based in eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban leaders coming into Afghanistan for talks have left their havens in Pakistan on the explicit assurance that they would not be attacked or arrested by NATO forces, Afghans familiar with the talks said. Many top Taliban leaders reside in Pakistan, where they are believed to enjoy at least some official protection.
In at least one case, Taliban leaders crossed the border and boarded a NATO aircraft bound for Kabul, according to an Afghan with knowledge of the talks. In other cases, NATO troops have secured roads to allow Taliban officials to reach Afghan- and NATO-controlled areas so that they can take part in discussions. Most of the discussions have taken place outside of Kabul, according to the Afghan official.
American officials said last week that talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders are under way. But the ranks of the insurgents, the fact that they represent multiple factions, and the extent of NATO efforts to provide transportation and security to adversaries they otherwise try to kill or capture have not been previously disclosed.
At least four Taliban leaders, three of them members of the Quetta shura and one of them a member of the Haqqani family, have taken part in discussions, according to the Afghan official and a former diplomat in the region.
The identities of the Taliban leaders are being withheld by The New York Times at the request of the White House and an Afghan who has taken part in the discussions. The Afghan official said that identifying the men could result in their deaths or detention at the hands of rival Taliban commanders or the Pakistani intelligence agents who support them.
The discussions are still described as preliminary, partly because Afghan and American officials are trying to determine how much influence the Taliban leaders who have participated in the talks have within their own organizations.
Even so, the talks have been held on several different occasions and appear to represent the most substantive effort to date to negotiate an end to the nine-year-old war, which began with an American-led campaign to overthrow the Taliban following the 9/11 attacks. "These are face-to-face to discussions," said an Afghan with knowledge of the talks. "This is not about making the Americans happy or making Karzai happy. It's about what is in the best interests of the Afghan people."
"These talks are based on personal relationships," the official said. "When the Taliban see that they can travel in the country without being attacked by the Americans, they see that the government is sovereign, that they can trust us."
The discussions appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan's leaders, who are believed to exercise a wide degree of control over the Taliban's leadership. The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan, which Mr. Karzai's government fears will exercise too much influence over Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw.
But that strategy could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis, who could undermine any agreement.
Mullah Muhammad Omar, the overall leader of the Taliban, is explicitly being cut out of the negotiations, in part because of his closeness to the Pakistani security services, officials said.
Afghans who have attempted to take part in, or even facilitate, past negotiations, have been killed by their Taliban comrades, sometimes with the assistance Pakistan's intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
"The ISI will try to prevent these negotiations from happening," the Afghan official said. "The ISI will just eliminate them," he said, referring to the people who take part.
Earlier this year, the ISI detained as many as 23 Taliban leaders residing in Pakistan after the intelligence service discovered that the Taliban leaders were talking secretly with representatives of the Afghan government.
Cutting Mullah Omar out of the negotiations appears to represent an attempt by Afghan leaders to drive a wedge into the upper ranks of the Taliban leadership. Though there is some disagreement among Afghan officials, many regard Mullah Omar as essentially a prisoner of the Pakistani security establishment who would be unable to exercise any independence.
Some American and Afghan officials believe that the Taliban is vulnerable to being split, with potentially large chunks of the movement defecting to the Afghan government.
The Haqqani group is the namesake of Jalalhuddin Haqqani, a former minister in the Taliban government in the 1990s who presides over a Mafia-like organization based in North Waziristan in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Haqqani network has sheltered several members of Al Qaeda and maintains close links to Pakistan's security services.
The group is believed to be responsible for many suicide attacks inside Kabul that have killed hundreds of civilians. Earlier this year, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of NATO forces here, asked the Obama administration to declare the Haqqani network a terrorist organization. That has not happened.
Indeed, the endorsement of such talks presents the Americans with a paradox. Many if not most of the leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani group are targets for death or capture. Many of the same individuals are also on the United Nations "black list," which obliges governments to freeze their assets and prevent them from traveling.
Waheed Omar, a spokesman for President Karzai, acknowledged that the government was in contract with a range of Taliban leaders, but he declined to discuss any details. "I cannot confirm that there have been discussions with the Quetta shura," he said.
The Taliban leadership and those in their immediate circle appear to be in the dark as well. A Pakistani cleric close to the Quetta shura and the Haqqani leadership said in an interview that he was unaware of any face-to-face discussions with Afghan leaders. But he said the Afghan government had recently sent out feelers to several Taliban commanders, with the proviso that Mullah Omar be left out.
"The problem is, they want to exclude Mullah Omar," the cleric said. "If you exclude him, then there cannot be any talks at all."
The Pakistani cleric said that some discussions among members of the Quetta shura may have taken place recently in Saudi Arabia, where many of the group's leaders had traveled during the holy month of Ramadan.
One Pakistani security official said he was aware of talks involving a member of the Quetta shura. But he said those discussions would likely come to nothing, because the Taliban leader did not any have official endorsement.
"He's useless," the Pakistani security officer said of the Taliban leader. "This guy is not in a position to make a deal."
For their part, American officials say they are wary of investing too much hope in the discussions. In the past, talks - or, more accurately, talks about talks - have foundered over preconditions that each side has set: For the Taliban, that the Americans must first withdrawal; for the Afghan government, that the Taliban must first disarm.
Perhaps the biggest complication lies on the battlefield. As long as the Taliban believe they are winning, they do not seem likely to want to make a deal. In recent months, as the additional troops and resources ordered up by President Obama have poured in, the American military has stepped up operations against Taliban strongholds.
So far, the insurgents have shown few public signs of wanting to give up. That much was acknowledged Tuesday by the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta.
"If there are elements that wish to reconcile and get reintegrated, that ought to be obviously explored," he said in Washington. "But I still have not seen anything that indicates that at this point a serious effort is being made to reconcile."
Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington. A Pakistani Employee of The New York Times also contributed reporting.