KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghanistan has denied that there have been peace talks with Taliban insurgents mediated by Saudi Arabia, despite a meeting hosted by the kingdom last month between Afghan government officials and former Taliban leaders.
With casualties from the war in Afghanistan, which began on October 7, 2001, and is now entering its eighth year, reaching record levels, military commanders and diplomats from NATO countries are calling for talks with the Taliban as the only way to end the fighting.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a direct appeal for peace to Taliban leader Mullah Omar a week ago and asked Saudi Arabia to help mediate in talks. But negotiations have yet to take place, Karzai's spokesman said.
"Afghanistan has not been speaking to anyone with the help of the Saudis and our brothers in Saudi Arabia," presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada told a news conference.'Speaking With Anyone'
Karzai, he said, "has approached his highness the Saudi king about playing a role...in bringing peace to Afghanistan and he would welcome any effort from the Saudi side.
"The government of Afghanistan is open to speaking with anyone in the opposition and the people who are fighting against the Afghan people and the Afghan government, but no such talks have happened as of yet," Hamidzada said.
A former Taliban envoy said he and other former Taliban had traveled to Saudi Arabia last month and met King Abdullah and Afghan government officials but there had been no negotiations.
"There were 15 to 16 people and we were seven or eight former Taliban and some government officials and we had a meeting with King Abdullah. In this meeting we did not talk or discuss any political issue, including Afghanistan," the former Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, told Reuters.
Zaeef spent more than three years detained in the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and now lives in the Afghan capital. He denies he is any longer a member of the Taliban, but says the insurgents have a right to defend Afghanistan from what he calls U.S. occupation.
The Taliban will fight on and not negotiate until all 64,000 NATO-led and U.S. troops leave the country, he said.
While the Taliban may be reluctant to sit down to peace talks as long as they think victory is in sight, officials from Britain, Canada, and the United Nations have said negotiations are the only way to solve the conflict.
The commander of British troops in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, told the "Sunday Times" the war could not be won and the goal was to shrink the insurgency so it was no longer a strategic threat and could be dealt with by the Afghan Army.'Acceptable Dictator'
Britain's ambassador to Kabul saw an "acceptable dictator" as the best solution, with more troops called for by Washington only creating more targets for the Taliban, according to parts of a diplomatic cable published in a French newspaper.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the British brigadier and ambassador were being "defeatist."
"While we face significant challenges in Afghanistan, there certainly is no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate the opportunities to be successful in the long run," Gates said on his way to Europe to meet defense ministers.
Washington is reviewing its Afghan strategy in a similar way to the 2006 reappraisal of its Iraq policy that led to a "surge" of 30,000 troops and helped pull the country back from civil war.
Gates compared the notion of talking to the Taliban to reconciliation efforts in Iraq, where tribal leaders have switched sides to fight the insurgency and Al-Qaeda.
"What we have seen in Iraq applies in Afghanistan," Gates said of the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban. "Part of the solution is strengthening the Afghan security forces. Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government."