Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday applauded Afghan President Hamid Karzai for telling an interviewer that the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban recently held three-way talks aimed at moving toward a political settlement of the war.
"What President Karzai's statement confirmed is that Afghanistan is now very much involved in the process of reconciliation," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon. "That's extremely helpful and important to determining whether or not we are ultimately going to be able to succeed with reconciliation."
Karzai made his comments to The Wall Street Journal in an interview published Thursday.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid contradicted Karzai, saying in a statement "the Taliban did not talk with the Kabul government anywhere."
Three-way talks would be significant because the Taliban, which ran Afghanistan until the October 2001 U.S. invasion in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has said they would only negotiate with the Americans. The Taliban maintains that Karzai is a puppet leader.
Afghan officials told The Associated Press that the United States had agreed last month to include representatives of the Karzai government in future meetings, but U.S. officials would not confirm that. U.S. officials did say that if this initial trust-building phase of contacts with the Taliban blossoms into full peace negotiations, the U.S. would sit alongside the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Afghan and U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door diplomacy.
When asked about Karzai's statement, other U.S. officials were more circumspect than Panetta.
White House press secretary Jay Carney would not confirm Karzai's assertion that a three-way session took place. He told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama to San Francisco that the United States is committed to seeking an Afghan-led peace process, and will keep Afghanistan informed of its efforts.
"We are obviously a part of this process that is Afghan-led. We keep the Afghan government abreast of any conversations that we have. But it would not be helpful to the process to name individuals or get too specified about it," Carney said.
A spokesman for the U.S-led international military coalition in Afghanistan, German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, welcomed Karzai's statement and said, "those talks that are obviously starting are the right direction."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Karzai's statement made clear that he and his government are prepared to be actively engaged in the political reconciliation effort, which the U.S. sees as vital to a successful outcome of its 10-year war.
"I'm not going to give President Karzai's public comments a grade," Nuland said. "I don't think that's helpful. But what we do want to emphasize is that he's now quite publicly speaking positively about the prospect for talks and about his government's willingness" to get the Taliban talking to his government.
Panetta made his comments about Karzai during a joint news conference with his German counterpart, Thomas de Maiziere, who offered his own advice about discussing the peace talks issue publicly.
"These talks will be better, the less we talk about them," de Maiziere said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee and AP broadcast reporter Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.