US enters peace discussions with Taliban leaders
Afghan president says talks are progressing well in bid to find political settlement to war
America is in peace discussions with the Taliban, the Afghan president revealed yesterday, in the first official confirmation of direct contact between the foes.
Hamid Karzai said "foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations", confirming speculation that the US was pursuing its own initiative to find a political settlement to the decade-long war.
Speaking in Kabul, Mr Karzai said: "Peace talks have started with (the Taliban) already and it is going well."
American State Department officials have reportedly met with former Taliban functionaries who are close to the movement's fugitive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Afghan government has been making overtures to the Taliban for years, but these have been rebuffed partly because of the lack of foreign involvement, diplomats have said.
The insurgents see Mr Karzai's government as a powerless puppet regime, backed by an occupying army. Direct US involvement is now thought critical by many advocates of talks.
Previous international efforts to contact the Taliban high leadership have foundered on an inability to reach anyone who has the confidence of the Taliban leader.
In one notorious case last year, a man claiming to be senior leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour turned out to be an impostor and walked away with a large sum of money.
Now American envoys are reported to have met Tayeb Agha, a former close aide to Mullah Omar, several times in Qatar.
Diplomats have stressed that the contacts are at the earliest stages and nothing of substance has been discussed.
One senior diplomat in Kabul said: "Lots of people are talking. The net is closing and some of the minnows have been discarded.
"There's some sense that the Taliban are thinking about talks, but there's no serious load-bearing negotiations."
Sceptics point out that the coalition appears more willing to negotiate than the insurgents, who have rejected talks so long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.
Hours after Mr Karzai's remarks, up to four Taliban suicide bombers dressed in military uniform attacked a police station in central Kabul. Afhgan authorities said nine people were killed in the attack.
American involvement in talks reflects a sea change in US policy in the country. With growing opposition to the war, President Barack Obama is wary of becoming trapped in a quagmire and America has abandoned its previous objections to talking to the Taliban leadership.
In February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that a diplomatic surge to find a peaceful settlement would be a cornerstone of efforts to stabilise the country and withdraw 140,000 Nato-led foreign troops.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, deputy chair of the High Peace Council, which Mr Karzai appointed with the task of trying to find a settlement, said he welcomed American participation.
But despite Mr Karzai's claims that Afghan efforts were proceeding well, Mr Mujahid said they had stalled over a Taliban request for diplomatic recognition.
America and the Afghan government had baulked at formally defining the Taliban as an official alternative to the Kabul administration.