WASHINGTON //Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said yesterday that the United States military is pursuing peace talks with the Taliban.
He made his remarks in a live TV broadcast after addressing a youth conference in Kabul. The talks, he said, were aimed at ending the violence and bringing the Taliban back into the political system.
He added that the Afghan government was not involved in the talks, contradicting reports of a statement he had made earlier yesterday. In that statement, Mr Karzai told reporters that peace talks had been under way for the past year.
"In the course of this year, there have been peace talks with the Taliban and our own countrymen," Mr Karzai said. "Peace talks have started with them already and it is going well. Foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations."
There have been reports of US-Taliban contacts in the past, but none have ever been confirmed. US officials have not acknowledged any, and the Taliban have denied them.
Earlier this month, however, Robert Gates, the outgoing US secretary of defence, said it might be possible to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban if allied military gains in Afghanistan were not reversed.
"I believe that if we can hold on to the territory that has been recaptured from the Taliban … we will be in a position toward the end of this year to perhaps have a successful opening with respect to reconciliation, or at least be in a position where we can say we've turned a corner here in Afghanistan," Mr Gates told CNN.
Officials have long said the US would not stand in the way of any rapprochement with the Taliban, which was ultimately an Afghan decision. At a briefing in Washington in April, Dereck Hogan, senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the US "has always been an advocate of a political settlement to the conflict".
"What that means for us, first and foremost, is that this must be a process led by the Afghan government."
For the US to accept the Taliban to become part of the political process again would necessitate that Afghan's former rulers accede to three conditions, Mr Hogan said. He named the three conditions as respecting the Afghan constitution, breaking ties with al Qa'eda and renouncing violence.
With the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the sense in Washington that al Qa'eda is no longer - and has not been for a while - a significant actor in Afghanistan, that second condition at least is a step closer.
Moreover, the UN Security Council voted unanimously on Friday to treat al Qa'eda and the Taliban separately when it comes to UN sanctions, a move aimed at supporting a reconciliation effort.
The US and its allies in Afghanistan are also looking to begin a withdrawal of troops this summer, with a view to completing a pullback in 2014. Successful talks with the Taliban would significantly ease that transition.
Americans are increasingly war weary. A CNN/Opinion Research Poll on June 9 found that, since the killing of bin Laden, some 75 per cent of respondents wanted the US to withdraw some or all of its troops from Afghanistan immediately, a ten point rise from May. One problem for any reconciliation process, however, has been finding credible Taliban leaders to talk to. Most of the movement's leaders are either unknowns or in hiding. There have been instances of some Afghans presenting themselves as Taliban leaders to wrest concessions from the government on local issues.