Karzai Says U.S. In Peace Talks With Taliban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed Saturday that Afghanistan and the U.S. are engaged in peace talks with the Taliban. Also on Saturday, there was a suicide bomber attack near the presidential palace that cost two policemen their lives. Host Scott Simon gets the latest from NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In Afghanistan today, President Hamid Karzai officially confirmed what's long been reported: that U.S. and Afgan officials are engaged in talks with the Taliban, talks aimed at negotiating an end to the decade-long conflict.

However, the insurgency has not eased. Shortly after President Karzai's announcement at the palace in Kabul, militants attacked a nearby police checkpoint. At least nine people were kidded.

Joining us now is NPR's Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks for being with us.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Thank you.

SIMON: There have been unofficial reports of some kind of talks going on for some time now. Do you have any insight as to why President Karzai decided to make it official now?

LAWRENCE: This is coinciding with Friday - yesterday's vote in the United Nations to decouple the Taliban and al-Qaida. They had been sanctioned as one regime, and as of yesterday the Security Council decided that al-Qaida is something different. It's a global organization and that the Taliban is something that essentially they are going to be able to negotiate with, and so they're no longer being sanctioned as one organization. That clears away one of the roadblocks to talks.

We know that on the U.S. side this has been an interest for quite some time. There have been people reaching out and even they have flown some people claiming to be Taliban leaders to the capital for talks. One in particular turned out to be an imposter.

What we don't know is on the Taliban side how serious they are, because all of their official statements say that they will not negotiate until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan. Now, it's assumed that there are some Taliban representatives that have been putting out feelers, but their official line hasn't changed.

SIMON: And what about the annual heating up of the fighting there in Afghanistan during this summer? Does that figure into it too?

LAWRENCE: Well, talking with a U.N. representative here recently, he said that there is often in conflicts like this a period of hot negotiations, where at the same time as everyone is turning up the heat on the battlefield - and that's certainly true with the Taliban and the U.S.-led foreign forces here -at the same time they're reaching out and trying to make peace. So, that could be happening now but it is the summer fighting season.

I've just returned - actually this morning - from Helmand province, which is where some of the worst fighting took place last summer. It's not nearly as bad there this year. The Taliban do seem to be somewhat on the defensive. But then they're turning to the softer targets, like attacks on small police outposts, attacks on civilians.

So, it's not clearly the atmosphere you'd expect to see peace talks, but some people with experience in these matters say that it's during these violent times that you do get breakthroughs.

SIMON: And what can you tell us about today's suicide bomber attack in Kabul?

LAWRENCE: This afternoon local time, the Taliban called very quickly after the attack and claimed responsibility. They actually sent us a text saying that there were three suicide bombers in the center of the city, which matches police reports there.

In the center of town near one of the only real luxury hotels in town, the Serena, where many businessmen come to stay - it's also adjacent to government ministries - and they attacked a police checkpoint. The police managed to shoot one of the bombers; another managed to set off his vest. A third was at-large and was fighting with police. You could hear gunshots for hours after the original attack.

SIMON: Did this fit into the timetable of President Karzai's announcement at all:

LAWRENCE: Unlikely that there was a connection. The Taliban have been turning to these softer targets, smaller attacks inside cities. Although it has to said, to get all the way inside Kabul's rings of security is not essentially a soft target like some of the civilian and marketplaces they've hit.

SIMON: NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Scott.

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