KABUL, Afghanistan — Airstrikes on Taliban insurgents have risen sharply here over the past four months, the latest piece in what appears to be a coordinated effort by U.S. commanders to bleed the insurgency and pressure its leaders to negotiate an end to the war.
U.S. pilots pounded the Taliban with 2,100 bombs or missiles from June through September, with 700 in September, Air Force officers said Thursday. That is an increase of nearly 50 percent over the same period last year, records show.
The stepped-up air campaign is part of what appears to be an intensifying U.S. effort, orchestrated by Gen. David Petraeus, to break the military stalemate here as pressure intensifies at home to bring the 9-year-old war to an end. In recent weeks, Petraeus has increased raids by special forces units and launched large operations to clear territory of Taliban militants.
And it seems increasingly clear that he is partly using the attacks to expand a parallel path to the end of the war: a U.S.-led diplomatic initiative, very much in its infancy but ultimately aimed at persuading the Taliban — or large parts of the movement — to make peace with the Afghan government.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have spoken approvingly in public of new contacts between Taliban leaders and the Afghan government. On Wednesday they acknowledged their active involvement by helping Taliban leaders travel to Kabul to talk peace.
On the diplomatic front, Afghan leaders said Thursday that they were seeing what they believed were the first positive signs from the Taliban. In a news conference in Kabul, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leader of a council charged with making peace, said that discussions with Taliban leaders — carried out through third parties — were under way.
“The Taliban have not rejected peace completely,” said Rabbani, a former Afghan president. They want the talks “to take place,” he added.
For all the efforts, U.S. and Afghan officials were quick to play down any suggestion that peace was at hand — or even remotely near. Most of the Taliban leaders, if not the movement’s foot soldiers, have given no sign that they are willing to make any sort of deal.
Even on the battlefield, there are few indications that the large increase in firepower ordered by President Barack Obama is having the intended effect. With the U.S.-led war moving through its bloodiest phase since 2001, more U.S. and NATO soldiers have been killed this year than at any time since the war began. In the past two days alone, at least 14 members of the Western forces here have been killed.
Senior U.S. officials, gathering Thursday at a NATO conference in Brussels, indicated that they were trying to energize a peace process about whose contours and duration they could only guess.
“We just — you know, we need to be open to opportunities that arise,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and his advisers have been trying for months to engage the Taliban’s leaders about the possibilities of ending the war. In part, Karzai and his team are motivated by concerns about Obama’s plan to begin reducing the number of U.S. forces here by July.