KABUL (Reuters) - The United States is in contact with the Taliban about a possible settlement to the war in Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday, the first official confirmation of U.S. involvement in negotiations.
U.S. officials would neither confirm nor deny Karzai's assertion on American contacts with the Taliban, which was ousted from power in a 2001 U.S. invasion for hosting al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Karzai said an Afghan push toward peace talks, after nearly a decade of war, had not yet reached a stage where the government and insurgents were meeting, but their representatives had been in touch.
"Peace talks are going on with the Taliban. The foreign military and especially the United States itself is going ahead with these negotiations," Karzai said in a speech in Kabul.
"The peace negotiations between (the) Afghan government and the Taliban movement are not yet based on a certain agenda or physical (meetings), there are contacts established."
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden would not confirm any contacts with the Taliban, but said the United States supported reconciliation in Afghanistan.
"I can't confirm any specific interactions, but we continue to support an Afghan-led reconciliation and reintegration process that would bring insurgents in from the cold," Hayden said.
Taliban reintegration was possible "provided they meet the Afghan government's long-standing red lines: renounce violence, break with al Qaeda and live under the Afghan constitution, including respect for the rights of women," she said.
A U.S. official in Kabul said Washington had assisted Afghan-led reintegration initiatives aimed at the Taliban.
"We must help create conditions necessary to enable a political settlement among the Afghan people. This includes reconciling those insurgents who are willing to renounce al Qaeda, forsake violence and adhere to the Afghan constitution," the U.S. Embassy official said.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, to help oust the Taliban. The Taliban regrouped and has been waging a fierce insurgency for years against the government, U.S. troops and other Western allies in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce next month how many troops he plans to withdraw from Afghanistan as part of a commitment to begin reducing the U.S. military presence in July and hand over to Afghan security forces by 2014.
There are currently about 100,000 U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, up from 34,000 when Obama took office in 2009.
Karzai was speaking the day after the U.N. Security Council split the U.N. sanctions list for Taliban and al Qaeda figures into two, which envoys said could help induce the Taliban into talks on a peace deal in Afghanistan.
Despite hopes that talks with the Taliban could provide the political underpinning for a staged U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the discussions are still not at the stage where they can be a deciding factor.
Diplomats say there have been months of preliminary talks, but the United States has never confirmed any contacts. So little is known about the exchanges that they have been open to widely different interpretations.
There are many Afghans, among them women's and civil society activists, who fear talks with the insurgents could undo much of the progress they have made in the decade since the Taliban was swept from power.
"We should not give up 10 years of achievements in Afghan women's rights. If that happens, these peace talks will be incomplete and unjust," said Suraya Parlika, head of the All Afghan Women's Union and a senator in the Afghan parliament.
The closest anyone in the U.S. establishment has come to publicly acknowledging efforts to kick-start talks was when Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this month there could be political talks with the Taliban by the end of this year, if the NATO alliance kept making military advances on the ground.
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Additional reporting by Sayed Hassib, Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Anthony Boadle