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Afghan government hints at Taliban talks

From Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
updated 12:06 PM EST, Sun January 22, 2012
Marc Grossman, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is in Kabul to talk with Afghan president Hamid Karzai..
Marc Grossman, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is in Kabul to talk with Afghan president Hamid Karzai..
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Hamid Karzai's government drops resistance to Guantanamo releases
  • NEW: Marc Grossman says no decisions have been made about freeing Taliban detainees
  • Secret talks between the United States and the Taliban have taken place since 2010
  • Karzai: The government and its peace council are making an effort to attain peace

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Afghan government of Hamid Karzai signaled willingness to join in with an American-led drive towards peace talks, according to a top official Sunday, removing a potential hurdle blocking U.S. efforts to push a peace process forward in the unstable country.

"Peace is our highest top priority and we support every effort that would lead to peace," Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin said, indicating that Kabul backs a plan for the Taliban establish an office in Qatar to facilitate talks.

His public statement, alongside the American architect of the peace initiative, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, also removed most doubts that the Afghan government might not fully support the peace U.S. initiative as it had not been involved in it from the very beginning.

Karzai's government also signaled it would not stand in the way of the release of prisoners from the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the Taliban are demanding.

"If the United States decides to transfer these detainees to Qatar to the extent that these people will be reunited with their families, the Afghan government will support that," Ludin said.

Marc Grossman, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Sunday that "no decisions have been made" about releasing detainees.

And he said the Taliban needed to make "a clear statement ... against international terrorism and in support of a peace process to end the armed conflict in Afghanistan" before it could open an office in Qatar, the Gulf state playing an increasing role in international diplomacy.

Grossman is due to travel to Qatar on Monday.

He met Karzai on Sunday for a second day of talks on how to end bloodshed and achieve a peaceful resolution to Afghanistan's conflict.

In one of the first open and detailed statements Grossman and Afghan officials have made on a peace process that he has been secretly marshaling for months, he said he hoped soon to meet President Karzai in Rome to discuss the process further.

Grossman also left a door open for talks with the controversial Haqqani network, which is linked to the Taliban but is often accused of being supported by Pakistani intelligence and being behind many American deaths.

"We had one meeting with the Haqqani network," he said. "We'll see. As the deputy foreign minister said, from the Afghan perspective anyway, this is an inclusive process and we'll have to see what turns out."

Karzai said earlier that Afghans should be in the driver's seat in finding a solution, saying the government and its peace council are making every effort to bring an end to the bloodshed.

"The Afghan nation is the owner of the peace process and any peace talks," Karzai told parliament on Saturday. "No other country or organization has the right to deprive the Afghan nation to this right. Afghanistan is not a place for foreigners to do their political experiments or a laboratory that every few years they test a new political system."

Karzai recently met with the party of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the militant Hizb-i-Islami group.

"It was a positive meeting and happened in a good atmosphere," said a senior Afghan official with direct knowledge of the talks.

The official, who did not want to be identified because the talks were confidential, said Hizb-i-Islami supports the process of negotiating with the armed opposition and more talks are planned.

The meeting with Hekmatyar served as a signal from Karzai to the United States that peace talks encompass other radical groups besides the Taliban.

Hizb-i-Islami has attacked U.S. forces, and Hekmatyar is on America's most-wanted list of terrorists.

Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi declined to give details of the talks with Grossman.

Grossman has been meeting secretly with Taliban negotiators for more than a year. Last week, U.S. senior administration officials said the United States could inch closer toward peace talks with the Taliban if Karzai blesses the negotiations.

Secret talks between the United States and the militant Taliban began in November 2010, sources said. Senior U.S. officials and diplomatic sources said German officials brokered initial meetings with Tayeb al-Agha, an aide to Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

The idea is for the talks to be Afghan-led, senior officials said, with as much U.S. participation as the Afghans need and want.

Grossman's visit comes days after Pakistan's government, embroiled in a squabble between civilian and military leaders, declined a visit from Grossman, saying it would fuel anti-American sentiments.

A U.S. State Department official said Grossman wanted to go to Pakistan, but the Pakistani government declined for the time being.

CNN's Elise Labott and journalist Nasir Habib contributed to this report.

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