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Published: Wednesday February 5, 2014 MYT 11:45:01 AM
Updated: Wednesday February 5, 2014 MYT 11:46:16 AM

U.S. discusses Afghan troop levels; Kabul holds talks with Taliban

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington January 14, 2014. Seated beside Obama is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington January 14, 2014. Seated beside Obama is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama met his senior military commanders to discuss the American presence in Afghanistan as officials in Kabul confirmed President Hamid Karzai's government has been holding secret talks with Taliban insurgents.

The United States said it welcomed any talks that would bring peace to Afghanistan.

"It's important to note here that we've long strongly supported an Afghan-led reconciliation, which would, of course, be Afghans talking to Afghans," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "So the notion that we wouldn't support that dialogue is inaccurate."

She added that the United States was not in discussions with the Taliban.

In Kabul, Karzai's spokesman confirmed a New York Times report that the government was holding talks with the Taliban in the hope of persuading them to make peace.

"I can confirm that ... Taliban are willing more than ever to join the peace process," Aimal Faizi said. "Contacts have been made and we are also in touch with them."

A member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council also confirmed that talks had taken place, but was measured in his assessment of their success.

"Talks took place in Dubai three weeks ago between government officials and Taliban who flew from Doha, but we are still waiting to see the result," he told Reuters.

Western and Afghan officials speaking to the Times also said the talks had borne little fruit so far. The contacts had not even progressed as far as opening negotiations for a tangible peace agreement, the paper said.

Obama's talks with U.S. military commanders focused on whether U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after this year, as they end their 13-year mission in the country that began shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. U.S. troops helped oust the Taliban regime from power after the Islamic militants refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and have since been helping the Kabul government fight the group.

No decisions on troop levels were made at the meeting.

NO SECURITY AGREEMENT YET

The United States would like to leave more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism and training of Afghan forces. But Karzai has refused thus far to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that Washington insists must be approved before it will agree to leave the troops behind.

A White House spokeswoman, Laura Lucas Magnuson, said Obama had a useful, constructive meeting with the military officials, who included General Joseph Dunford, commander of international forces in Afghanistan; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other defence and White House officials.

"The president continues to weigh inputs from military officials, as well as the intelligence community, our diplomats, and development experts and has not yet made decisions regarding the post-2014 U.S. presence," Magnuson said.

Karzai's relationship with Washington has come under increasing pressure since November, when he announced his intention to avoid signing the BSA until after a presidential election on April 5.

His decision to drop a deal that had taken about a year to hammer out shocked Western diplomats. The uncertainty about Afghanistan's fate after U.S. troops pull out has also weighed on the economy.

Karzai's refusal to sign is sapping already scant support for the war in Washington, which has halved aid for civilian assistance in the fiscal year 2014.

Washington has signalled it could pull all troops out after 2014 unless a deal is signed soon. This would leave Afghanistan's fledgling security forces to fight the Taliban insurgency alone, without U.S. financial and military support.

The Taliban have vowed to derail the election, and have stepped up attacks in Kabul despite the peace talks.

January's tally of attacks was the highest since 2008, according to security officials, and the trend has continued into February, with two bombs going off in Kabul on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Jessica Donati in KABUL, and Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and David Alexander in WASHINGTON; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan Editing by Alex Richardson)

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