Karzai invites Taliban leaders for direct talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai today invited the Taliban for 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.

"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.

Washington welcomed Karzai's offer of talks with the Taliban, saying people in the war-torn country need to take the lead in reconciliation efforts.

"We have been gratified to see President Karzai speaking out publicly in support of Afghan-to-Afghan reconciliation," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

"Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job... because when we get to the point where it's Afghans and Afghans talking to each other, then we'll really have a true reconciliation process," she said.

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.

"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," Karzai said in his statement.

In an interview with Australian TV network SBS broadcast today, the Afghan leader 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.

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