By Eltaf Najafizada

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the U.S. is holding peace talks with Taliban guerrillas who accept Afghanistan’s constitution.

“Peace talks with the Taliban and other countrymen who accept the Afghan constitution, Afghanistan’s development, democracy and freedom have started this year, and God willing they are going well,” Karzai told a national youth conference in the capital, Kabul, yesterday. “International forces, especially America, are carrying out these talks.”

The U.S. hasn’t confirmed the talks and Afghan Taliban spokesmanZabihullah Mujahid has denied that they are taking place.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan, harboring the al-Qaeda terrorist network, until they were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will announce the first reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next month.

About 100,000 U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon and Obama has pledged to fully transfer security duties to the Afghan government by 2014. Concern over the rising American debt has helped increase calls in Congress for the White House to withdraw a substantial number of U.S. troops from the country.

Karzai’s statement was his first to corroborate reports this month by the Washington Post andAssociated Press that cited unidentified U.S. and Afghan officials as saying secret U.S. talks were under way with a Taliban official close to the group’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an e-mail yesterday that she couldn’t “confirm any specific interactions, but we continue to support an Afghan- led reconciliation and reintegration process that would bring insurgents in from the cold provided they meet the Afghan government’s long-standing redlines: renounce violence, break with al-Qaeda, and live under the constitution, including respect for the rights of women.”

“We have consistently supported an Afghan-led process of reconciliation,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in an e-mail yesterday. “Currently, we have a broad range of contacts across Afghanistan and the region, and at many levels, to support that effort.”

Karzai said his government isn’t taking part in the talks, and he underscored the essential role of neighboring Pakistan in any peace process. “Getting Pakistan’s help in peace talks is very important for us,” he said.

Pakistan’s military has backed the Afghan Taliban as a proxy force, according to analysts such as Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid and U.S. officials such as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last week, Karzai met Pakistani leaders to discuss their participation in Afghan peacemaking.

The Afghan leader said a High Peace Council that he appointed, which includes former Taliban officials, has opened contacts with the guerrillas.