KABUL, Afghanistan - Formal peace talks between Taliban insurgents and the central government may be at a dead end, but provisional peace negotiations are being held in the rugged and often unforgiving Afghan countryside.
In some remote districts, Afghan army and police commanders have agreed to cease-fires with local Taliban commanders, according to international coalition officials, diplomats, and former top Afghan government advisers. Driven by tribal and sometimes family ties, these informal accommodations are viewed as a possible blueprint for a wider, more meaningful national peace deal after 12 years of war.
In many instances, former top Afghan government security advisers say, the Taliban is under intense pressure from tribes fed up with the militants' roadside bombings and intimidation of villagers. In other instances, local Afghan military commanders seek to buy time and immobilize the Taliban while receiving more training and equipment from U.S. military advisers.
Tribal authorities are central figures in negotiating the cease-fires, which can last for weeks or even months. Tribal elders often have ethnic or family ties both to local Taliban commanders and Afghan army officers. They are trusted by both sides, and can ensure that everyone abides by the cease-fires.
U.S. military commanders have long said that the war in Afghanistan will not end with a battlefield victory. A negotiated peace settlement is the only solution, they say, and local cease-fires may - or may not - provide a path forward on the national level.
"We never wanted to see the Afghan security forces try to fight the Taliban to the last man," a senior coalition commander said in an interview. He said cease-fires may "in some cases be an indicator of things to come."
Local cease-fires have accelerated in recent months as the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, have taken over combat duties from U.S. and international troops. With Afghans now in the lead, they have more leeway to negotiate with insurgents.
"I think anything which involves Afghan military commanders making judgments of the situation that is presented to them has to be a positive thing," said the British army's Brig. Neil Marshall, who directs Afghan security force training for the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
Not part of mission
Marshall emphasized that the ISAF does not get involved in cease-fires, or deal with the issue as part of its "advise, train and assist" mission. He said Afghan commanders "understand the human terrain" and make accommodations with insurgents aimed at protecting civilian lives and ensuring freedom of movement.
In a report to Congress last month, the Pentagon said "highly localized" cease-fires are most common in the Taliban-dominated south, particularly in the northern part of Helmand province. A former top adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai described other cease-fires in Khowst province near the Pakistani border.
"These accommodations are localized, often personality-driven and largely influenced by tribal dynamics," the Pentagon report says.
In some cases, cease-fires may reflect Afghan security forces' fear of "being isolated and overwhelmed by what they perceive as a superior insurgent force," the report says.
A year ago, an ISAF consultant predicted in a study that local cease-fires would become more common after foreign combat troops withdraw next year.
Although the cease-fires are informal, they are not considered entirely unofficial because "such agreements tend to be culturally binding for honor and other reasons," the study concludes.