U.S. ready for direct talks with Afghan Taliban, general says

By Ismail Sameem and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The United States is ready to join direct negotiations with the Taliban in an effort to end the 17 year-long war in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander, said on Monday, amid growing speculation about possible peace talks.

The comment follows increased diplomatic efforts to seek talks following unprecedented scenes of unarmed Taliban fighters mingling with Afghan security forces on the streets of Kabul and other cities during last month's surprise ceasefire.

Nicholson, who leads the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, said the United States recognized it had a key role to play.

"Our Secretary of State, Mr (Mike) Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces," he said.

"We hope that they realize this and that this will help to move the peace process forward."

Earlier, the New York Times reported that President Donald Trump's administration had ordered diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban in a bid to jump-start negotiations.

Sohail Shahin, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, said he was still waiting for confirmation but welcomed signs of the new approach.

"This is what we wanted and were waiting for, to sit with the U.S. directly and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan," he said.

He said that as a first step, he expected to see Taliban leaders removed from a United Nations black list in order to be able to travel. He also said the issue of international troops in Afghanistan would be a major issue and that the Taliban would be willing to discuss U.S. concerns.

U.S. officials have said that Trump has shown growing impatience with a lack of progress in Afghanistan, where the Taliban control much of the country despite a more aggressive campaign of air strikes announced last year.

The insurgents have rejected talks with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which they see as illegitimate and instead insisted that they would only talk with the United States.

Pompeo has said that while the overall peace process must be Afghan-led, Washington would be ready to join talks, a shift from its previous position that only Ghani's government had legitimacy to talk with the Taliban.

He has also said the United States is willing to discuss the position of international forces in Afghanistan, which the Taliban have said must leave as a condition for negotiations.

Senior U.S. officials, including Pompeo and Alice Wells, the State Department's top diplomat for Afghanistan, have visited Kabul in recent weeks to try to smooth the way for talks.

Many obstacles still remain before a conflict which has killed a record number of civilians this year can end. While all sides say they want talks, and there have been behind-the-scenes contacts, the only major peace talks broke down almost immediately after they started in 2015.

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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