KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan government representatives will meet former members of the Taliban behind closed doors in Saudi Arabia soon for a second round of talks on how to end the insurgency.
The Taliban derided a first round in September and have repeatedly said they will not enter negotiations as long as foreign troops remained in Afghanistan, but the meeting was welcomed by some officials as offering a glimmer of hope.
An Afghan government official would give few details of the talks other than to say they would likely be held in Saudi Arabia again.
“Talks will not bear fruit when held in an open manner. This is an ongoing process and we will announce the results when there is a breakthrough,” he said.
He said the government had not given up hope of attracting current representatives of the Taliban, adding: “It is not clear (if they will attend), but when peace is the aim, then all should be present.”
With the Taliban insurgency growing in strength more than seven years since their overthrow, the possibility of talks with the insurgents is being openly considered by Karzai’s government and his Western allies.
About 70,000 foreign troops, 32,000 of them American, are struggling against the Taliban, whose influence and attacks are spreading in the south, east and west.
Karzai says the Taliban demand for foreign troops to leave is unacceptable, but on Sunday he repeated an offer to talk to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who carries a $10 million bounty on his head and is seen as close to Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban rejected the offer.
Analysts say the government and its Western allies are hoping to draw moderate Taliban, or perhaps opportunistic commanders, into talks to isolate hardline elements and al Qaeda insurgents.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month the United States would be prepared to reconcile with the Taliban if the Afghan government pursued talks, but Washington would not consider negotiations with al Qaeda.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has also suggested he was open to talks with more moderate Taliban leaders.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing on Monday that talks with militants willing to reconcile were part of the process, but he thought the time was not right.
“At least from my perspective, we’re not there yet,” he said.
Asked if it was a good idea to approach Mullah Omar, Mullen said that was up to Karzai.
The Taliban threatened to launch attacks in Paris unless France pulls its troops out of Afghanistan, in a video aired by Al Arabiya television on Monday.
The video also claimed an ambush that killed 10 French troops in August was carried out by the Taliban. It was not clear when the recording, which included footage of insurgents wearing uniforms of the French soldiers they had killed, was made.