BRUSSELS NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday he hoped Afghan-led peace talks would start soon despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai's boycott of talks between the United States and the Taliban.
A day after the United States announced it would talk to the Taliban, whom its troops have fought in Afghanistan since 2001, Karzai said on Wednesday the Kabul government would stay out of the talks until "foreign powers" allowed the negotiations to be run by Afghans.
A meeting between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives had been set for Thursday in Qatar but Kabul government anger at the fanfare surrounding the opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state threw preparations into confusion.
Rasmussen appeared to side with Karzai by pointing out that at NATO's Chicago summit last year, alliance leaders had made clear that the peace process in Afghanistan must be "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned".
"Reconciliation is never an easy process in any part of the world," Rasmussen said.
Nevertheless, he said peace talks could reinforce security gains in Afghanistan and contribute to long-term security and unity.
"So I hope such talks will start sooner rather than later," he told reporters after talks at NATO headquarters with Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski.
NATO-led forces battling the Taliban are transferring security responsibilities to Afghan security forces before the planned withdrawal of most foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
As a mark of his displeasure, Karzai said on Wednesday the government was suspending talks on a security pact with the United States that will stipulate how many U.S. soldiers will stay in Afghanistan after most pull out.
That has implications for NATO because the Western alliance must also negotiate a similar agreement with the Afghan government setting out the framework for a NATO training mission that will stay on in Afghanistan after 2014.
Talks on the NATO-Afghan pact are not expected to start until Afghanistan completes its pact with Washington.
Rasmussen, who was in Afghanistan earlier this week, said that, based on his conversations with Karzai, he was confident that "at the end of the day, we will reach an agreement on the security arrangements".
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Angus MacSwan)