Taliban deny reports of Afghan talks
Kabul - The Taliban on Wednesday denied reports that the insurgency is planning direct talks with the Afghan government to end the 10-year-old war, as Pakistan's foreign minister promised to back any peace process as long as it is Afghan-led.
Rumours have swirled for days that President Hamid Karzai's government was seeking direct talks, to be held in Saudi Arabia, in an effort to take charge of the peace effort that has so far been dominated by American efforts and talks with Taliban representatives.
A statement on Wednesday from Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid rejected those reports as "baseless".
He also noted that exploratory talks between the insurgency and the US-led international military coalition in Afghanistan have not yet reached the stage for negotiations.
"Before the negotiation phase, there should be trust-building between the sides, which has not started yet," Mujahid said.
The Taliban have so far expressed willingness only to talk with the US, calling the Afghan government a puppet regime. Washington insists it is only setting the stage, and any eventual talks must involve Karzai's government.
US intelligence officials acknowledged on Tuesday that the United States may release several Afghan Taliban prisoners from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an incentive to bring the Taliban to peace talks.
Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper told Congress on Tuesday that no decision had been made whether to trade the five Taliban prisoners, now held at Guantanamo Bay, as part of the nascent peace talks with the Taliban.
He and CIA Director David Petraeus did not dispute that the Obama administration was considering transferring the five to a third country.
Who will lead any future peace negotiations has become a major concern. Karzai has reportedly felt sidelined by the US effort.
Afghanistan's own moves toward talks with the Taliban stalled after an ex-president heading the High Peace Council spearheading the effort was assassinated by a bomber claiming to have a message from the insurgents.
That killing damaged relations between Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan after Kabul blamed insurgents based over the Pakistani border for the killing.
Peace and stability
Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, visited Kabul on Wednesday to mend relations and insisted her country has no hidden agenda in Afghanistan. Khar said Pakistan will back a peace process with the Taliban as long as it's driven by Afghans and not other figures on the international stage.
"Pakistan wants peace and stability in Afghanistan, and contrary to the hypotheses that do the rounds the world over, Pakistan prefers and considers it vital to have stable Afghanistan," she said.
"Our only prerequisite to be supportive of an initiative is that it should be Afghan-led, it should be Afghan-owned, it should be Afghan-driven and Afghan-backed."
Khar's visit coincided with the leak of a classified Nato report saying that Taliban and its allied insurgents get support from Pakistan.
The US-led military coalition in Afghanistan said on Wednesday that an Afghan soldier shot and killed a Nato service member in southern Afghanistan in what the coalition described as an attack and an Afghan commander called an accident.
It was the sixth report since December 26 of an Afghan soldier turning his weapon on the international troops working to train the Afghan security forces. The string of attacks has raised concerns about relations between Afghan troops and their foreign allies.
After an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers on January 20, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would speed up the exit of its troops from Afghanistan and that it would ask Nato to hand over all combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013 instead of by the end of 2014.
Sarkozy at the time said the attacker was a Taliban infiltrator, but Afghan and Nato investigators have said it was too early in the investigation to know his motivation.
The rising number of attacks by supposed friendly Afghan forces has prompted speculation that Taliban insurgents or sympathisers may be infiltrating national army and police as they rapidly expand to meet the 2014 target for Afghan forces to take over security and most international troops to leave.
There have been at least 35 attacks on international troops since 2007 by Afghan soldiers, police or insurgents wearing their uniforms, according to a tally by The Associated Press. The number rose sharply last year to 17, up from six in 2010.
In Kabul, Nato spokesperson Cummings said on Wednesday that the rising number of attacks doesn't point to any pattern.
"We feel they're isolated cases," he said. "There's no indication these incidents are linked or part of any co-ordinated effort."
Cummings said that the 130 000-strong international force works daily with more than 300 000 Afghan security personnel, mostly without problems. He said that Nato is satisfied with Afghanistan's vetting process for army recruits.
Tuesday's killing brought to 34 the number of international troops killed in Afghanistan this year.