Afghanistan's Karzai in secret talks with Taliban
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been holding secret talks with Taliban officials in the hope of persuading them to make peace with his government, his spokesman told Reuters on Tuesday, confirming a New York Times report.
"I can confirm that ... Taliban are willing more than ever to join the peace process," Aimal Faizi said. "Contacts have been made and we are also in touch with them."
A member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council also confirmed that talks had taken place, but was measured in his assessment of their success.
"Talks took place in Dubai three weeks ago between government officials and Taliban who flew from Doha, but we are still waiting to see the result," he told Reuters.
Western and Afghan officials speaking to the Times also said the talks had borne little fruit so far, although they may help explain Karzai's mounting public hostility to Washington.
The relationship has come under increasing pressure since November, when he announced his intention to avoid signing a bilateral security deal with the United States until after a presidential election on April 5.
His decision to drop a deal that had taken about a year to hammer out shocked Western diplomats. The uncertainty about Afghanistan's fate after U.S. troops pull out has also weighed on the economy.
Faizi did not directly link Karzai's surprise move to the start of talks with the Taliban, but said relations had improved since then.
Relations with the United States have been on a downward spiral, however, and Karzai's refusal to sign is sapping already scant support for the war in Washington, which has halved aid for civilian assistance in the fiscal year 2014.
President Barack Obama, frustrated by Karzai's refusal to sign the accord, was due to meet top commanders at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the future of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Washington has signaled it could pull all troops out after 2014 unless a deal is signed soon. This would leave Afghanistan's fledgling security forces to fight the Taliban insurgency alone, without U.S. financial and military support.
The Taliban have vowed to derail the election, and have stepped up attacks in Kabul despite the peace talks.
January's tally of attacks was the highest since 2008, according to security officials, and the trend has continued into February, with two bombs going off in Kabul on Monday.
(additional reporting and writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Ron Popeski)