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U.S. backs Afghan reconciliation, no comment on talks

WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday renewed its support for an Afghan reconciliation effort aimed at ending a 9-year-old war that has worsened, despite the presence of nearly 150,000 foreign troops in the country.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, however, declined to give any details of reported high-level secret talks between representatives of the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.

He said U.S. officials were playing no role in the reconciliation effort.

“This is something that has to be Afghan-led. This is about Afghanistan. It has to be done by the Afghans,” he told reporters at the White House. “We have always been supportive of that reconciliation.”

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the Taliban representatives taking part in the meetings were authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban organization based in Pakistan, and its leader, Mullah Omar.

Karzai’s spokesman Waheed Omer, speaking in Kabul, declined to confirm or deny the report of new meetings.

A senior U.S. administration official said there had been a series of what he called “engagements” between Afghan officials and the Taliban for the past few months. He declined to characterize the nature of the engagements.

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However, it is understood they have been progressing to the point where higher-level representatives have become involved.

“It’s early days, but the momentum is gathering,” said a United Nations official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s too early for any breakthrough -- that’s a long way off.”

He said Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, elements of which have been accused of aiding Taliban militants fighting in Afghanistan, was now taking part in the talks, which he called a significant development.

U.S. ATTITUDE CHANGING

He said the U.S. military also appeared to be softening its line to what it perceived to be “good Taliban and bad Taliban.”

Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban insurgency and best-selling author of “Descent into Chaos”, agreed the U.S. attitude toward such negotiations has “quietly eased.”

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai speaks during the opening ceremony of the peace jirga in Kabul in this June 2, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

“The key is U.S. endorsement publicly,” he told Reuters.

U.S. President Barack Obama has backed Karzai’s efforts to open the door to Taliban members who renounce violence and links to al Qaeda, but Washington has so far been wary of overtures to senior Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar and others on the U.S. blacklist.

Obama, who is looking for an exit strategy, has sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to try to break the Taliban’s momentum. He has pledged to start drawing down forces in July 2011.

Obama is facing disenchantment over the war effort with the U.S. public and Congress, which controls funding. Progress toward Afghan reconciliation would enable Obama to show Americans a possible path to U.S. withdrawal.

The U.N. official said Obama’s determination to stick to his withdrawal timetable was encouraging the parties in the conflict to talk to one another “to ensure the future shape of Afghanistan reflects their own interests.”

But Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell cautioned on Tuesday that a broad Taliban shift toward reconciliation with the Afghan government was unlikely for now. The military needs to apply more pressure on insurgents, he said.

Karzai launched an effort earlier this year to reach out to elements of the Taliban that might be willing to reconcile with the government, obey Afghan laws and renounce violence.

Additional reporting by David Alexander and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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