Karzai urges Taliban talks before U.S. pullout

KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban fighters should drop their demand that U.S. and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan before peace talks can be held, President Hamid Karzai said on Sunday, saying talks would make it easier for troops to leave.

Karzai is hoping to launch a peace initiative this year, but Taliban fighters have long said they are willing to negotiate only if more than 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan leave the country first.

Karzai said the Taliban’s insistence on a withdrawal of Western troops before any talks was “not a meaningful gesture.”

“The international community is here for success in defeat of terrorism, success in the defeat of extremism,” Karzai told a news conference. “Therefore, they have to be satisfied that they have achieved their objective before they can leave.”

The Taliban should “return to their own country and work for peace in order for us to be able to have the U.S. and other forces to be able to have the freedom to go back home,” he said.

At a conference on Afghanistan in London last Thursday, Karzai called on militants to take part in a “loya jirga” -- or large assembly of elders -- as a start to peace talks.

Karzai made clear on Sunday that he wants to move quickly. He said he would summon the jirga in less than six weeks, before another international conference he intends to host in Kabul, penciled in for some time in the next few months.

Karzai has consistently made overtures to the Taliban, and the West has been increasingly supportive in public of proposals to lure fighters down from the hills in a bid to end years of fighting in a war now into its ninth year.

Washington is sending 30,000 more troops this year to try to turn the tide in the war and other nations are sending some 7,000. Washington also says it wants to begin drawing down its forces in mid-2011.

Karzai said he will soon travel to Saudi Arabia, which has offered to help facilitate talks with the Taliban provided that the militants stop giving sanctuary to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He did not give dates for the trip, which palace officials say they expect within days.

Karzai has been hoping to remove insurgent leaders from international terrorist blacklists to help bring them to the table for talks. The United Nations removed five names last week, but none of them were senior Taliban figures.

“We as Afghans are trying our best to reach as high as possible to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, but it has an international aspect as well. It is a bit more complicated,” he said.

Editing by Jonathon Burch and Peter Graff