U.S.-Taliban talks only 'exploratory' - Afghan envoy

ISLAMABAD Fri Feb 17, 2012 5:28am IST

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai speaks at the Afghanistan parliament in Kabul, January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai speaks at the Afghanistan parliament in Kabul, January 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban and the United States have made only "exploratory" contacts for possible reconciliation which do not involve the Kabul government, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan said on Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday the U.S. and Afghan governments had begun secret three-way talks with the Taliban, based on an interview it conducted with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"I must emphasise that word 'exploratory'. They are not talks," Afghan ambassador to Pakistan Umar Daudzai told Reuters.

"When there's talks, it's supposed to be between the Afghan government and the Taliban. We have not reached to that stage although we wish to reach to that stage."

The Wall Street Journal quoted Karzai as saying the Taliban were "definitively" interested in a peace settlement to end the 10-year war in Afghanistan, and that all three sides were now involved in discussions.

It said Karzai had declined to specify the location of the talks or go into further detail, saying he feared this could damage the process.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said the group had not held talks with the Karzai government.

The Afghan Taliban announced last month it would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting the group may be willing to engage in negotiations that could give it government positions or official control over much of its historical southern heartland.

"At a high level, (there are) secret talks and American-Taliban talks. I'm not aware of any other than the Qatar process," said Daudzai.

"The Qatar process is exploratory contacts between Taliban and the United States."

The Afghan ambassador said the Kabul government's contacts with the Taliban were limited to communications between low-level officials and local insurgent commanders.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Karzai's comments showed Afghanistan was involved in reconciliation discussions.

"What President Karzai's statement confirmed is that Afghanistan is now very much involved in the process of reconciliation," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.

"That's extremely helpful and important to determining whether or not we are ultimately going to be able to succeed with reconciliation or not," he said.

Washington wants to accelerate contacts with the Taliban so it can announce serious peace negotiations at a NATO summit in May, officials say, in what would be a welcome bright spot in Western efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.

The United States hopes it can declare a start to authentic political negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban at the May 20-21 summit in Chicago, after a year of initial, uncertain contacts with militant representatives.

It would be a needed victory for the White House and its NATO partners in Afghanistan as they struggle to contain a resilient insurgency and train a local army while moving to bring their troops home over the next three years.

(Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton in ISLAMABAD, Rob Taylor in KABUL and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Michael Georgy and Todd Eastham)

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