By Emma Graham-Harrison and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL - The United States is in contact with the Taliban about a possible settlement to the near decade-long war in Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday, the first official confirmation of U.S. involvement in negotiations.
Karzai said that an Afghan push toward peace talks had not yet reached a stage where the government and insurgents were meeting, but their representatives had been in touch.
"Peace talks are going on with the Taliban. The foreign military and especially the United States itself is going ahead with these negotiations," Karzai said in a speech in Kabul.
"The peace negotiations between (the) Afghan government and the Taliban movement are not yet based on a certain agenda or physical (meetings), there are contacts established."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined immediate comment.
Karzai was speaking the day after the U.N. Security Council split the U.N. sanctions list for Taliban and al Qaeda figures into two, which envoys said could help induce the Taliban into talks on a peace deal in Afghanistan.
But despite hopes that talks with the Taliban could provide the political underpinning for the U.S. staged withdrawal from Afghanistan, the discussions are still not at the stage where they can be a deciding factor.
Diplomats admit there have been months of preliminary talks between the two sides, but the U.S. has never confirmed any contacts. And so little is known about the exchanges that they have been open to widely different interpretations.
There are also many Afghans, among them women's and civil society activists, who fear talks with the insurgents could undo much of the progress they have made since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban government.
The closest anyone in the U.S. establishment has come to publicly acknowledging efforts to kick-start talks was when Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this month there could be political talks with the Taliban by the end of this year, if the NATO alliance kept making military advances on the ground.
Afghanistan's neighbors are nervous about plans for a strategic partnership with the United States, which may include long-term bases on Afghan soil, Karzai also warned.
"The issue of strategic partnership deal with U.S. has caused tensions with our neighbors," Karzai said. "When we sign this strategic partnership, at the same time we must have peace in Afghanistan."
That is unlikely however, as the deal is expected to be concluded in months, and even the most optimistic supporters of talks expect the process to take years.
If successful, the deal might ease worries among those Afghans who fear the United States will pull out too quickly, leaving a weak, impoverished government to fend off militants, and those who worry the foreign forces they see as occupiers will never leave.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce next month how many troops he plans to withdraw from Afghanistan as part of a commitment to begin reducing the U.S. military presence from July and hand over to Afghan security forces by 2014.
The United States is on the verge of announcing a "substantial" drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Friday.
"There's going to be a drawdown. I am confident that it will be one that's substantial. I certainly hope so," the leading Senate Democrat said during an interview with PBS Newshour.
There currently are about 100,000 U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, up from about 34,000 when Obama took office in 2009.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
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