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U.S. holding direct talks with Taliban Afghan president confirms secret effort

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that the United States is holding direct talks with the Taliban, the first public confirmation of the secret effort to end the nearly decade-long war.

Karzai's comments, made in a speech filled with criticism of the United States, came hours before a suicide attack on a police station in central Kabul that killed at least nine people and injured 10 others just a few hundred yards from Karzai's heavily fortified palace.

The United States hasn't publicly acknowledged the talks, and some U.S. officials privately question whether the initiative, portrayed as exploratory discussions, will bear fruit.

There have been at least three meetings between a senior U.S. diplomat and Tayyeb Agha, a former senior aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the last one recently held in Germany under German auspices.

The discussions so far have made no apparent progress toward kick-starting talks on a political settlement of the war.

Some U.S. officials are pessimistic they will, in part because they don't know how much clout Agha still retains with Omar and his leadership council, based in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.

However, in a possibly encouraging development, the New York Times, on its website Saturday night, reported that al-Qaida's original network in the region has been severely crippled, providing an opening for an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The Times, quoting high-ranking officials, reported that the intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan, had left al-Qaida paralyzed, with many of its leaders dead or pinned down in remote frontier areas.

President Obama is expected next week to unveil specifics of the plan to begin reducing the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, as his top aides and growing numbers of lawmakers from both parties are demanding.

Karzai's disclosure of the peace initiative came in a speech he made at his palace to a student organization in which the Afghan leader also took shots at his U.S. allies, suggesting that he's angry that there has been no Afghan government participation in the discussions with Agha.

"In the course of this year, there have been peace talks with the Taliban and our own countrymen," Karzai said. "Peace talks have started with them already, and it is going well. Foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations."

He then renewed his attacks on the U.S. conduct of the war, saying that his government insists that U.S.-led coalition forces stop imprisoning Afghans and conducting night raids and house searches.

Karzai's criticism came a day before he was due to hold talks with a U.S. delegation on a strategic agreement that would govern the status of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Karzai's government and his Western backers have offered to hold negotiations on a peace agreement with leaders of the Taliban and other insurgent groups who renounce violence, lay down their arms and break with al-Qaida. But the militants have rejected peace talks until the full withdrawal of foreign military forces.

One reason that some U.S. officials are pessimistic about the contacts with Agha is that they consider him tainted by his detention last year by Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, along with the Taliban's then second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The ISI picked up the pair and other senior Taliban close to Baradar in Pakistan, because Baradar was believed to have been secretly trying to make a separate deal with Karzai in which he'd break from Omar and embrace peace talks. Had he done so, Pakistan would have lost much of the input it seeks in the forging of any peace accord.

However, many experts and some U.S. officials question whether a political settlement is possible. The United States and its allies have made it clear they intend to withdraw their combat troops by 2014, giving the Taliban and other insurgent groups little incentive to negotiate.

In Saturday's attack, three insurgents wearing military uniforms and equipped with guns and explosives vests charged into a police station in a commercial area of central Kabul that hasn't been targeted before, witnesses and an Afghan security official said.

Meanwhile, three NATO service members also were killed Saturday -- two in southern Afghanistan and one in the east, according to the alliance. At least 33 international soldiers have died in Afghanistan so far this month, raising the death toll for 2011 to 239.

The United States has roughly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. When the president sent an additional 30,000 U.S. forces to Afghanistan at the end of 2009, he did so with the caveat that some of those troops would start coming home in July.