BUDAPEST, Hungary - When NATO defense ministers meet in Budapest on Thursday, they will face a worsening situation in Afghanistan and vexing questions about whether the war can be won.
Increasingly, military commanders and political leaders are asking: Is it time to talk to the Taliban?
With U.S. and NATO forces suffering their deadliest year so far in Afghanistan, a rising chorus of voices, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the incoming head of U.S. Central Command, have endorsed efforts to reach out to members of the Taliban considered willing to seek an accommodation with President Hamid Karzai's government.
"That is one of the key long-term solutions in Afghanistan, just as it has been in Iraq," Gates told reporters Monday. "Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government going forward."
Gen. David Petraeus, who will become responsible for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan as head of U.S. Central Command on Oct. 31, agreed.
"I do think you have to talk to enemies," Petraeus said Wednesday at an appearance at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, when asked about potential dialogue with the Taliban.
"You've got to set things up. You've got to know who you're talking to. You've got to have your objectives straight," he said. "But I mean, what we did do in Iraq ultimately was sit down with some of those that were shooting at us. What we tried to do was identify those who might be reconcilable."
In terms of Afghanistan, he said: "The key there is making sure that all of that is done in complete coordination with complete support of the Afghan government - and with President Karzai."
But entering negotiations with the Taliban raises difficult issues. It is not clear whether there is a unified Taliban command structure that could engage in serious talks, and the group still embraces the hard-line ideology that made them pariahs in the West until their ouster from power in 2001.
During its 1996-2001 rule, Afghan women and girls were barred from attending school or holding jobs, music and television were banned, men were compelled to wear beards, and artwork or statues deemed idolatrous or anti-Muslim were destroyed.
In an assault that provoked an international outcry, Taliban fighters blew up two giant statues of Buddha that had graced the ancient Silk Road town of Bamiyan for some 1,500 years.
Seven years after the U.S. invasion, what was originally considered a quick military success has turned into an increasingly violent counterinsurgency fight. An unprecedented number of U.S. troops - about 32,000 - are in Afghanistan today, and the Pentagon plans to send several thousand more in the coming months. Gates is expected to press for additional troops and money for the fight in Afghanistan at this week's NATO meeting.
At least 131 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, surpassing the previous annual high of 111 in 2007. An additional 100 troops from other NATO nations have died in 2008.