KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that the U.S. is holding direct talks with the Taliban, the first public confirmation of the secret effort to end the nearly decade-long war.
Karzai's comments, made in a speech filled with criticism of the U.S., came hours before a suicide attack on a police station in central Kabul that killed at least nine people and injured 10 others just a few hundred yards from Karzai's heavily fortified palace.
The U.S. hasn't publicly acknowledged the talks, and some U.S. officials privately question whether the initiative, portrayed as exploratory discussions, will bear fruit.
There have been at least three meetings between a senior U.S. diplomat and Tayyeb Agha, a former senior aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the last one recently held in Germany under German auspices.
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The discussions so far have made no apparent progress toward kick-starting talks on a political settlement of the war. Some U.S. officials are pessimistic they will, in part because they don't know how much clout Agha still retains with Omar and his leadership council, based in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.
Karzai's disclosure of the initiative came in a speech he made at his palace to a student organization in which the Afghan leader also took shots at his U.S. allies, suggesting that he's angry that there has been no Afghan government participation in the discussions with Agha.
"In the course of this year, there have been peace talks with the Taliban and our own countrymen," 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."
He then renewed his attacks on the U.S. conduct of the war, saying that his government insists that U.S.-led coalition forces stop imprisoning Afghans and conducting night raids and house searches.
Karzai's criticism came a day before he was due to hold talks with a U.S. delegation on a strategic agreement that would govern the status of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Karzai's government and his Western backers have offered to hold negotiations on a peace agreement with leaders of the Taliban and other insurgent groups who renounce violence, lay down their arms and break with al Qaida. But the militants have rejected peace talks until the full withdrawal of foreign military forces.
One reason that some U.S. officials are pessimistic about the contacts with Agha is that they consider him tainted by his detention last year by Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, along with the Taliban's then second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The ISI picked up the pair and other senior Taliban close to Baradar in Pakistan, because Baradar was believed to have been secretly trying to make a separate deal with Karzai in which he'd break from Omar and embrace peace talks. Had he done so, Pakistan would have lost much of the input it seeks in the forging of any peace accord.
However, many experts and some U.S. officials question whether a political settlement is possible. The U.S. and its allies have made it clear they intend to withdraw their combat troops by 2014, giving the Taliban and other insurgent groups little incentive to negotiate.
Moreover, there appears to be little ground for compromise by an insurgent movement fighting to re-impose hard-line Islamic rule under an all-powerful religious leader on a country with a democratic-style constitution that mandates elections of its government and parliament.
Germany, which commands NATO troops in northern Afghanistan, is hoping to announce some kind of formal peace negotiations at an international conference in Bonn scheduled for the end of the year.
Karzai said the conference was "very important" and that he hoped that members of the Taliban would take part so that Afghanistan would be represented as "as one nation."
"I have told foreigners that either one Afghanistan under one flag will be sitting at the conference, or we will not participate," Karzai said.
In Saturday's attack, three insurgents wearing military uniforms and equipped with guns and explosives vests charged into a police station in a commercial area of central Kabul that hasn't been targeted before, witnesses and an Afghan security official said. News reports said the dead included three police officers and an intelligence agent.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message sent to reporters.
"They were about eight people who denied to be searched by the police. They entered the police station and started firing, and used hand grenades," said Naqibullah, 16, who washes cars inside the police station. The teenager, who like many Afghans goes by a single name, said he took shelter in a bathroom while a battle went on for about one hour.
Another witness, Omid Ziayee, said that the three suicide attackers were young and clean-shaven. They were wearing Afghan army uniforms, a tactic often used by Taliban insurgents to gain access to government facilities.
President Barack Obama is expected next week to unveil a plan to begin reducing the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, as his top aides and growing numbers of lawmakers from both parties are demanding.
But some U.S. officials in Washington and Afghanistan are concerned that violence is getting worse and that security conditions are too fragile to allow for the "significant" troop drawdown that lawmakers and Obama's aides want.
(Shukoor, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Kabul. Landay reported from Washington.)
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