Karzai Invites Taliban Leaders For Direct Talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday invited the Taliban to direct talks with his government, while urging Pakistan to facilitate negotiation efforts towards ending Afghanistan's decade-long war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday invited the Taliban to direct talks with his government, while urging Pakistan to facilitate negotiation efforts towards ending Afghanistan's decade-long war.

"In order to realise the objectives of the peace process, I invite the leadership of the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government," Karzai said in a statement issued by his office.

Taliban representatives have begun contacts with US officials in the Gulf state of Qatar designed to build confidence and pave the way for a prisoner exchange, but the militia has publicly refused to talk to Karzai's government.

Relations between Kabul and Islamabad are traditionally mired in distrust, but both sides have made overtures towards reconciliation in the hope that a political solution in Afghanistan can ease regional instability.

The United States, which leads the 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, says NATO combat troops will withdraw from the country by the end of 2014 and officials have backed negotiations as the only long-term solution to the war.

"I hereby request our brotherly government of Pakistan to support and facilitate our direct negotiation efforts as part of the peace process," Karzai said, calling Pakistan's support "crucial" to any success in negotiations.

The statement came after Karzai spoke by telephone to US President Barack Obama about Afghan-led reconciliation moves and a visit last week to Pakistan, where he said it was time to take action for peace.

"The peace process, which envisions the return of all Afghans... including the Taliban, to peaceful lives in their country, is the surest way to peace and stability in Afghanistan," the Afghan leader said in the statement.

In an interview with Australian TV network SBS to be broadcast Tuesday, Karzai said his government talks to the Taliban everyday, albeit indirectly.

"We talk to the Taliban every day. We were talking to them just a few days ago," he told the channel.

He denied media reports that the insurgent militia, which was kicked out of power by the 2001 US-led invasion for failing to give up Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks, will not deal with his US-backed government.

American Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad last May, in what Washington termed a major victory and seen by analysts as key to American support for a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Pakistan says it will do anything required by Kabul to support an Afghan-led peace process, but there is a wide degree of scepticism in Afghanistan and the United States about the sincerity of the former Taliban ally.

At a summit with Karzai and Iran's leader last Friday, President Asif Ali Zardari denied that Pakistan played a double game in supporting the militia, whose leaders are thought to have close ties to elements in the military.