Hamid Karzai confirms talks with Taliban

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The Independent Online

President Hamid Karzai confirmed today that his government has been in informal talks with the Taliban on securing peace in Afghanistan "for quite some time" - the latest in a series of high-level acknowledgements of contacts with the insurgent group.

Unofficial discussions have been held with Taliban representatives over an extended period, Mr Karzai told CNN's Larry King Live in an interview to be broadcast today.

"We have been talking to the Taliban as countryman to countryman," he said. "Not as a regular official contact with the Taliban with a fixed address, but rather unofficial personal contacts have been going on for quite some time."

Afghan presidential spokesman Waheed Omar has previously said that the administration was in contact "for the past couple of years" with "different levels of Afghan Taliban wanting to reconnect with the government". It was not immediately clear if the Karzai interview was the first time the president had acknowledged the talks directly.

Nato's top commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has also said the military coalition was aware of overtures made by Taliban insurgents at the highest levels to the Afghan government.

The drumbeat about talks comes as support for a drawn-out military push in Afghanistan is waning in the US and with other Nato allies as the war enters its 10th year. Sending thousands more US troops this summer to the country's south has yet to show significantly increased security in the Taliban heartland.

The Afghan government said it hopes to make talks more structured with a "peace council" which will aim for formal discussions with insurgent groups.

Yesterday, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani was named chief of the council. Mr Karzai praised their choice by the 70-member group, saying Mr Rabbani's leadership would be "good for Afghanistan".

Mr Rabbani was one of a group of mujahideen leaders who fought the Soviets in the 1980s. He was Afghanistan's president between 1992 and 1996, when he was ousted by the Taliban.

"How much longer can we wait for foreigners to establish security for us? How much longer can we witness explosions in our mosques and see our leaders killed?" Mr Rabbani said as he accepted the position. "Peace will come when we co-operate." The panel formally began work on Thursday.

Publicly, the Taliban have said they will not negotiate until foreign troops leave the country, yet many Taliban leaders have reached out directly or indirectly to the highest levels of the Afghan government.

There have been no formal negotiations yet between the Afghan government and the Taliban, only some contacts and signals from each side, according to Mr Karzai's spokesman.

Last February, Mr Karzai sent a small delegation of former Taliban members to Saudi Arabia to seek the kingdom's help in kick-starting talks with the Taliban. But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom would not get involved in peacemaking unless the Taliban severed all ties with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida terror network - a key US demand.

One of the former Taliban members, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said unequivocally then that he could not negotiate on behalf of the Taliban. The meeting ended without any results.