KABUL, Afghanistan — Recent pronouncements by the Taliban have raised the possibility that the insurgents may be softening their stance on what a future without U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan might look like.
But even among those who are most optimistic about reviving a stalled peace process, there is hesitation about prospects for reaching a political settlement before the bulk of NATO forces pull out in 2014. And others dismiss the Taliban's overtures as propaganda designed to build the group's political profile among Afghans and the international community.
At informal talks last week in France with Afghan government officials and members of the political opposition, Taliban representatives said the militant group wasn't looking to monopolize power and would be willing to govern with other factions. They also promised to grant rights to women and ethnic minorities, which they have violently repressed.
But there is reason for caution. According to some local and Western accounts, the group is riven by internal power struggles. Preliminary contacts between the United States and the Taliban's political representatives in Qatar met with a backlash from the group's military commanders that helped scuttle that initiative.
The insurgents are well aware of growing calls in the United States for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, and some appear to believe it makes more sense to wait out international troops than to come to the bargaining table.
The Taliban cut off contacts with the U.S. in March, accusing officials of failing to follow through on proposals to hand over several senior insurgents held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier known to be held by the Taliban. The proposed swap had been intended as a confidence-building measure.
President Hamid Karzai's own efforts at establishing a channel with the Taliban have also foundered.
In September 2011, a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban emissary killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and head of the High Peace Council set up by the government to conduct negotiations with the insurgents.
The government appears to have made more progress with recent overtures to Pakistan, which agreed to release at least nine Taliban prisoners who Afghan officials thought could help jump-start the peace process. But government officials would like Pakistan to do more, including using its influence to persuade the Afghan insurgents to begin formal negotiations.
Pakistan has ties to the Taliban that date back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and many experts believe it continues to support the insurgents as a hedge against nuclear archrival India.
Although the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the Afghan government, which it derides as a "puppet" of the United States, it agreed to send two representatives to France to present its views. The envoys read a speech that was later circulated to journalists.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban envoy who represented the government's High Peace Council at the talks hosted by a French think tank at a secluded chateau near Paris, described the encounter as a "very successful step … toward peace and reconciliation."
"It was the first time in 10 years that the people of Afghanistan from different tribes, different political lines, including the government and opposition, came together around one table and discussed the problems of this country," he said. The views expressed "were not that much different."
He noted that there were two female Afghan parliamentarians among the participants and said there was joking between them and the Taliban representatives about the "excellent progress" made by the group on women's rights, given their willingness to sit at the same table.
The Taliban has suffered military setbacks, particularly in the south of Afghanistan, and U.S. officials have said the pressure is drawing some militants to the bargaining table.
A State Department official had no comment on the contents of the Taliban's speech. But he said, "We support such meetings and discussions among Afghans about the future of Afghanistan, and we will do whatever we can to support a peaceful political settlement."
Gran Hewad of the Afghanistan Analysts Network said the Taliban of today is not the same movement that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
"It's clear that the Taliban is not as popular as they were … or as strong," he said. "This is an opportunity. They are signaling that they are willing to talk, that they want to go forward."
But others aren't convinced that the line taken by the Taliban in France represents a genuine policy shift.
"It's too early to say," said Fazil Sancharaki, a spokesman for the National Coalition of Afghanistan, the party of President Hamid Karzai's main rival in the 2009 elections, Abdullah Abdullah. "On the one side, they are continuing their fighting; on the other side, they are taking part in political talks."
Gen. Atiqullah Baryalai, a former deputy defense minister and prominent member of the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban in the 1990s, was blunter. "They are playing with words," he said. "It is just propaganda."
Baryalai said he believes the militants are probably buying time until the 2014 Western pullout, when he said they intend to make their move.
The speech delivered by the Taliban's representatives in France reiterated many of the group's long-standing policies. It said that the Taliban's "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" is the nation's "legitimate government" and insisted that all foreign forces leave the country.
It also demanded a new constitution because it said the current one was "written under the shadows of B-52 aircraft."
And it appeared to rule out Taliban participation in a presidential election scheduled for 2014, saying the poll would not be "beneficial for solving the Afghan quandary" because it will be organized under occupation.
Even the pledge to grant rights to women appeared to contain caveats.
"Women in Islam have the right to choose husbands, own property, right to inheritance and right to education and work," the speech said. "The Islamic Emirate will safeguard the rights of women such that their legitimate rights are not violated … and Islamic requirements endangered under the guise of education and work."
The government, for its part, maintains that the Taliban must agree to renounce violence, recognize the constitution, cut ties with foreign terrorists and respect human rights.
"Peace efforts are part of the process," Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said this week. "All these issues can't be resolved in one, two or three meetings. We hope that this process of meetings, consultations and dialogue, which includes all the key Afghan sides, will continue."
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.