U.S. plays down reports of Afghan peace talks

WASHINGTON Fri Oct 29, 2010 4:12pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. official for Afghanistan sought to play down reports on secret peace talks with the Taliban, saying on Friday that no high-level discussion was under way with insurgent leaders.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said while more Taliban footsoldiers were looking to lay down their arms, reports of peace talks were wildly overblown.

"There's less here than meets the eye," Holbrooke told a news briefing. "There's no indication at this point that the Taliban leadership wishes to change its course."

Official sources say all main parties in the Afghan conflict are now considering ways to reach a political settlement, and have described cautious preliminary contacts between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Holbrooke, a seasoned negotiator, said even these reports were overstating the case.

"I know the difference between talks, negotiations, talks about talks, and we're not even at that state," Holbrooke said.

Reports of a possible peace outreach come as U.S. officials await the results of a major offensive on the Taliban's southern heartland. Support for the war has waned in the United States, despite President Barack Obama's pledge to begin drawing down American forces around the middle of next year.

Overall, insurgent forces appear strong, inflicting record casualties on foreign troops and spreading the fight to once peaceful areas.

Holbrooke, who this week held meetings in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said both sides were working together on how to implement a ban on private security firms, an issue that led to sharp words between Kabul and Washington last week.

Karzai had vowed to move quickly against the private security companies, which aid organizations say provide crucial protection for their work but which are perceived as reckless and lawless by many in Afghanistan.

After a round of meetings, Karzai's office said this week it would form a committee to prepare a timetable to disband the companies, allowing for a more orderly transition of security responsibility and no interruption of critical development projects.

Holbrooke said the dispute, which threatened to affect tens of millions of dollars in aid work, came about due to miscommunication between the two sides.

"The international community, including our own government, did not pay enough attention to the Afghan government's repeated statements that they were serious," Holbrooke said.

"(Karzai) was correct on this issue. And the international community did not take it seriously enough. And we should have. And now we are."

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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