KABUL (AFP) – The United States is holding talks with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday, in the first official confirmation of such contacts after nearly 10 years of war.
Although diplomats and officials say talks are at a very early stage, Karzai’s remarks highlight the increasing focus on finding a political solution in Afghanistan as foreign combat troops prepare to pull out by 2014.
“Talks with the Taliban have started… the talks are going on well,” Karzai said, addressing a conference in Kabul.
“Also foreign forces, especially the United States, are carrying out the talks themselves.”
But the problems surrounding any reconciliation bid were thrown into sharp focus shortly afterwards when nine people died as three Taliban attackers armed with suicide vests and machine guns stormed a Kabul police station.
A British soldier was shot dead in an insurgent attack, the defence ministry said, while France confirmed one of its troops was also fatally wounded by militant gunfire.
The militants have consistently rejected any efforts to talk peace in public statements.
“We have already said this and have repeated it many times. We have no negotiation with the United States and we deny any report as such,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.
A US State Department spokeswoman in Washington had “no comment” on Karzai’s statement.
“However, we have consistently supported an Afghan-led process of reconciliation,” spokeswoman Megan Mattson told AFP.
“Currently, we have a broad range of contacts across Afghanistan and the region, and at many levels, to support that effort.”
The US embassy in Kabul did not respond to a request for comment on the latest remarks from Karzai, who is known for dropping unscripted, headline-grabbing remarks into speeches.
Western officials acknowledge on condition of anonymity that attempts to set up contacts with the Taliban are at a very early stage, while efforts to open up a communication channel with Taliban leaders are still being made.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year called on Taliban members to split from Al-Qaeda, renounce violence and accept the constitution so they can be re-integrated into society.
And US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to Kabul this month that there could be talks with the Taliban by the end of the year if foreign troops make sufficient gains.
A report last month in Der Spiegel magazine claimed Germany was helping to mediate secret, direct talks between the US and the Taliban on German soil while the New Yorker magazine reported in February that the US had begun direct discussions with senior Taliban figures.
Karzai’s comments came the day after the United Nations Security Council agreed to split the international sanctions regime for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The move sends “a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from Al-Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by the Afghan constitution,” said Susan Rice, UN envoy for the United States, which led the campaign for the division.
Afghan attempts to pursue talks with the Taliban have been public for months — Karzai last year set up a High Council for Peace to look at the issue.
But efforts to negotiate hit an embarrassing set-back when reports in November said a Pakistani shopkeeper posing as a senior Taliban leader had been brought to Kabul for talks with the president before being exposed as a fake.
US President Barack Obama is expected to announce soon how many troops from his country will pull out from July as the process of handing control from foreign to Afghan forces starts.
It is due to conclude in 2014, when all foreign forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.
Obama is facing mounting pressure to announce a significant drawdown after last month’s killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and amid domestic economic woes and a mounting US death toll.
The Taliban’s harbouring of bin Laden was the reason for the US-led invasion in 2001 following the September 11 attacks.
There are around 130,000 international troops in Afghanistan, of which some 90,000 are from the US.