NATO troops are ready to help the Afghan government reach out to former Taliban combatants, the Western military alliance's chief confirmed on Thursday.
Speaking after a meeting in Brussels of NATO defence and foreign ministers, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the "reconciliation process is Afghan-led".
"Our position is that if we can facilitate this process through practical assistance, then why not?" he asked. "I won't go into details. If we get a request and can be of practical assistance, then we are prepared to do that."
He pointed out that NATO was only prepared to accept militants who "put down weapons and cut off links with armed groups" and pledge to respect the Afghan democratic constitution and human rights, including those of women.
Speaking earlier to US broadcaster ABC, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the idea of reaching out to people who may have been NATO's foes until now.
"If you look at conflicts around the world, you don't make peace with your friends," she said.
"What we are seeing is a move by the lower-level fighters, many of them to leave the battlefield. ... I think it's highly unlikely that the leadership of the Taliban that refused to turn over (Osama) bin Laden in 2001 will ever reconcile."
"But stranger things have happened in the history of war. But it can only happen if they're willing to abide by the red lines that we and the Afghan government have established," Clinton said.
"Whenever opportunities arise that are worth exploring, I think we should take advantage of that," US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates added after the NATO talks.
Both Clinton and Gates stressed that they had asked Afghan President Hamid Karzai to ensure the maximum "transparency" in the process.
Separately, Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini indicated that his and several other NATO countries had imposed a "caveat" on the dialogue with former fighters.
"Those that fire on our soldiers cannot be reintegrated," he warned.
"Based on the reasonableness and seriousness" of proposals from Karzai's government, "single names or groups may be lifted from the international lists of terrorist organisations," Frattini said.
The US has long backed Afghan-government-led talks with the Taliban, provided the militants agreed to the terms outlined by Rasmussen. The New York Times reported Thursday that US forces are permitting the travel of senior Taliban leaders to participate in the peace talks, citing US and NATO officials.
The US willingness to allow the travel to and back from the talks was seen as a sign by the paper that the Obama administration has questioned the effectiveness of the troop buildup and was encouraging a peaceful settlement.
However, Clinton told reporters in Brussels that it was "something perhaps of an exaggeration to read too much into these early reports that are appearing in the press," as she stressed that efforts were "just beginning" and "may or may not be legitimate or borne out as producing any bona fide reconciliation."