By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said his government talks to the Taliban every day through intermediaries, according to an interview by Australia's SBS television for broadcast on Tuesday.
Afghan and U.S. officials are seeking negotiations with the Taliban as a way of ensuring peace after foreign combat troops leave in 2014, though the talks lay in a very fragile state and the Islamist group recently rejected they existed at all.
"We talk to the Taliban every day. We were talking to them just a few days ago somewhere around this region," Karzai said in an interview taped a week ago in Kabul with SBS, adding his contact with the group's one-eyed leader Mullah Omar was through indirect means.
"(But) not personally," Karzai said when asked if he had spoken with Omar. "I mean not directly, person to person. But through intermediaries, yes." Karzai and many Western analysts say the reclusive leader is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Karzai also stressed that peace talks with the Taliban, who were originally backed by Islamabad, are key to regional stability and bringing peace as well to Pakistan, a player seen as crucial to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.
"It's no longer Afghanistan that's the subject of conversation, or the issue. It's Pakistan as well. It's peace in Pakistan as well. It's stability in Pakistan as well," he said.
The interview was recorded before Karzai's visit to Islamabad last week, where he upset Pakistan by asking for access to Afghan Taliban leaders belonging to the so-called Quetta Shura, or leadership council, named after the Pakistani city where it is said to be based.
Afghans have always been suspicious of Pakistani intentions because of historical ties between Pakistani intelligence and insurgent groups like the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has consistently denied the existence of the Quetta Shura.
During the bitter civil war that engulfed Afghanistan following the end of the Soviet war, the Taliban ruled the country from 1996-2001 under strict Islamic laws and provided shelter to al Qaeda until their ousting by U.S.-backed Afghan troops just over a decade ago.
Karzai said despite the history, he is also keen to work together with Islamabad to help advance peace talks with the Taliban.
"We as the Afghan people and government are willing to help Pakistan work for peace in Afghanistan and work for peace in Pakistan, together," Karzai said in fluent English.
Karzai added that Afghanistan was making progress on security in the eleventh year of a costly war, local and foreign support for which is souring.
The United States and NATO are racing against the clock to train a 350,000-strong force of Afghan army and police who will take over all security responsibilities before end-2014, when foreign combat troops leave, though skepticism looms that the target can be met in an increasingly violent war.
The Afghan leader also said the Taliban would not return to power in a total capacity.
"I don't think the Taliban will ever come back to take Afghanistan, no," he said.
"Two years ago I would have been uncertain and unwilling to give you an answer as firm as I do today. The Afghan people will not go back to the nothing of 10 years ago."
(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Ed Lane)
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