KABUL, Afghanistan -- Since the US military expelled the Taliban three years ago, it has battled the regime's diehard fighters in the barren mountains and dusty wastes of southern Afghanistan. Now the United States is extending an olive branch to moderate elements of its shadowy foe.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Kabul, offered amnesty recently to all but those Taliban whose crimes are ''beyond forgiveness." Senior US military officials have backed the proposal and promised not to arrest any Taliban foot soldier who surrenders under the amnesty.
''My message [to the Taliban] is: There's no reason to fight, to stay up in the mountains," Khalilzad said during a press conference. ''Lay down your arms, go to your elders, and tell them you want peace."
Former top leaders such as Mullah Omar, the movement's fugitive chief, would not be eligible for the anmesty. US and Afghan officials have not specified the criteria used to judge who would qualify for amnesty, how so-called moderates would be evaluated, and how the government will win their confidence and guarantee their immunity.
The US offer adds weight to a process begun over a year ago by President Hamid Karzai, who has called on so-called moderate Taliban to rejoin Afghan society. The government has been negotiating with a group of Taliban leaders in the hope that they will persuade the rank and file to surrender, but has yet to indicate any concrete results.
Afghan and US officials expect the reconciliation process to gain momentum following the Taliban's failure to disrupt the presidential election in October. The enthusiastic electorate showed the Taliban they were out of step with the nation's mood, they said.
The elections ''were a signal to these folks that 'I either get in on this game or I'm going to live in the hills for the rest of my life,' " said Colonel David Lamm, chief of staff for US military operations in Afghanistan.
In addition to public overtures, groups of Taliban leaders have been visiting Kabul for months for talks organized by members of the National Security Council, a policy unit at the presidential compound, Afghan security officials and senior government representatives said. The leaders, who are said to include Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, have been kept in secret guesthouses around the city and their identities protected.
Afghan officials hope the moderate Taliban will be tempted to support the government by the prospect of parliamentary elections, scheduled for spring. Under Afghan electoral law, former Taliban who had given up their link to armed groups and did not have a criminal record would qualify to run for parliament.
A senior Afghan official who is not involved in the talks said the National Security Council was distributing money among provincial Taliban commanders to win support for the initiative.
Lamm said he expected most of the Taliban's rank and file, whom he estimated to number a few thousand, to take up the amnesty offer by summer. Low- and mid-level fighters had begun approaching provincial leaders about turning themselves in, he said.
General David Barno, head of the US-led coalition, told the Associated Press last month that he expected the reconciliation process could allow a withdrawal of some of the 16,000-strong US military presence by summer.
However, some Afghan officials and political analysts were skeptical the process would quickly bear fruit.
Fear of the US military may be hard to dispel in southern communities where the US-led coalition has pursued an aggressive campaign against remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they said.
In remote villages where government authority is negligible, Kabul can offer defectors little protection from their former comrades or other local militia.
''It's not enough to say, 'Come back and live in your villages,' " said a presidential palace official with knowledge of the talks with the Taliban. ''We don't have the institutions to make sure these people are safe."
Afghan and US officials who support the amnesty say militants can approach village elders and religious leaders or representatives of the new national army to give themselves up. Those people would become responsible for protecting those who turned themselves in.
The officials say they are working on the system to identify foot soldiers and monitor their movements after they surrender. Lamm said former militants could be given an identification card or number.
There are deep divisions within the government on how to draw the line between moderate Taliban and those who would not be given amnesty. Karzai said that thousands of low-level Taliban loyalists may resettle in their villages and that only a core of about 150 militants would not qualify for amnesty.
But some officials disagree, including members of the military coalition of northern minority groups, known as the Northern Alliance, that bitterly fought the Taliban.
''[Where do you] draw the line in a group whose agenda is not moderate?" said one Cabinet official, who asked not to be identified.
Talk of reconciliation has also raised hackles among some of Afghanistan's neighbors, including Russia and Iran, who traditionally backed northern minorities and see the Taliban as Pakistan's allies. Pakistan backed the Taliban until September 2001.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov of Russia sparked a dispute with Kabul last month when he said that attempts to reconcile with the Taliban, combined with the rising influence of ethnic Pashtuns in Kabul, were the ''way towards starting a new war." He said dividing the Taliban into ''good and bad" was unacceptable.
Afghan and US officials say the Taliban amnesty will prompt debate about the question of transitional justice, a complex issue in a country where a brutal civil war left few people without blood on their hands. Amnesty for the Taliban should be seen as part of a broader process of reconciliation, they say.
''Is this a South African plan where you reconcile almost everybody?" Lamm asked. ''Or is there a list of people that the Afghans say are not reconcilable? We'll work all that out with the Afghan government and support what they decide to do."