US holding talks with Taliban: Afghan president

Hamid Karzai says the talks are "going well".

Powered by automated translation

KABUL // 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 the talks are at a very early stage, Karzai's remarks highlight the increasing focus on finding a political settlement 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 facing any efforts to end the conflict were thrown into sharp focus hours later when militants launched a coordinated attack on a police station in central Kabul, which sources said left at least two people dead.

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, which visited neighbouring Pakistan -- seen as key to establishing communication channels -- last week.

But Western officials are more tight-lipped about any conciliatory moves from their side.

The US embassy in Kabul did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Karzai's remarks.

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.

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 in a bid to encourage the Taliban to join reconciliation efforts.

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.

US President Barack Obama is expected to announce soon the number of troops from his country who 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 pullout following the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last month and amid domestic economic woes.

Bin Laden's harbouring by the Taliban was the reason for the US-led invasion in 2001 following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The Afghan government and the international community have set a number of pre-conditions for talks.

They include that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution, respect the values of democracy, renounce violence and break ties with their Al-Qeada backers.

These pre-conditions have been rejected in public by the militants, who are leading a bloody insurgency against foreign and Afghan forces.