Kabul, Afghanistan (AP) - The Afghan government's newly formed peace council wants Saudi Arabia to play a key role in efforts to reconcile with the Taliban and find a political resolution to the war.
Qiyamuddin Kashaaf, spokesman for the 70-member High Peace Council, said Thursday that Saudi Arabia would be a good place to hold any formal peace talks that might develop from exploratory discussions the Afghan government is having with some high-ranking members of the Taliban.
"The Muslim Afghan nation wants to bring peace to this country and is asking Islamic countries: 'Help your brothers. It is the responsibility of the Muslim world to respond to this request of the Afghan nation,'" Kashaaf told reporters.
He said Saudi King Abdullah should help foster talks if peace negotiations in Afghanistan are not successful.
"We want the Saudi king to help," Kashaaf said. "If the two sides cannot make peace, my appeal is for the king to take the lead role in the talks."
Saudi Arabia once had close ties to the Taliban government that emerged victorious from Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s. Pakistan gave diplomatic recognition to Taliban rule in May 1997; recognition followed from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Last February, Karzai sent a small delegation of former Taliban members to Saudi Arabia to seek help in kick-starting talks with the Taliban. But the Saudis said the kingdom would not help unless the Taliban severed all ties with Osama bin Laden -- a Saudi -- and his al-Qaida terror network. That is also a key demand of both the U.S. and Afghanistan.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters on Thursday that Pakistan supports an Afghan-led reconciliation process.
"We are working toward that end, and we will continue supporting in whatever way ... the government of Afghanistan wants us to help," he said. "We will leave this issue here because it is better not to get into specifics at this stage."
Kashaaf said the council knows the importance of guaranteeing the security of insurgents who want to talk.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said that the coalition has already helped provide safe passage to insurgent leaders in contact with the Afghan government. NATO officials say there have been contacts with significant leaders of the Taliban, but caution that discussions are preliminary.
The Taliban released a statement on Thursday refuting claims that it had sent any delegations for talks with the Afghan government and said it had no intention of negotiating at a time when the country is occupied by foreign troops.
As Afghan officials press for peace negotiations, tens of thousands of international forces are simultaneously pushing deeper into Taliban strongholds, especially in the south. The ability of NATO and Afghan forces to take and hold the southern provinces -- and the Afghan government's ability to win the loyalty of citizens away from the Taliban -- is a key test of U.S. President Barack Obama's decision last year to send 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.
It's been unclear over the past few months how effective the southern offensive has been. Residents have reported pockets of stability, but insurgents continue to target government officials and the government has struggled to set up a civilian administration despite NATO backing.
A similar operation began in February in the southern, poppy-producing hub of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province has so far failed to completely pacify the area, partly because the military push was not backed by an effective civilian expansion.
But Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother and leader of the provincial council, says security is improving in Kandahar and Afghan and coalition forces are chasing the Taliban out of the province.
"There's a lot of progress in security. ... Some (Taliban) were arrested. Some were killed," Ahmed Wali Karzai said. "There's no single Taliban base in Kandahar province right now."
He said some insurgents left before military operations began.
Government officials will set up institutions in areas cleared of Taliban, he said. Improving residents' quality of life is crucial to winning long-term popular support and maintaining control of territory.
In Kandahar city, one resident said people were less afraid now to provide information about insurgents.
"The Taliban are weak now and people are not so afraid of them, so now people can help the government," said Salam Bacha Barakzai, a 41-year-old teacher. "You can see that Taliban are being arrested everywhere. That's because the people are helping."
Separately, NATO said a force member was killed following an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan Thursday, bringing to 48 the number of NATO troops killed so far this month.
Also in eastern Afghanistan, NATO said 17 senior insurgent fighters were captured or killed between Oct. 12 and Oct. 18.
In western Paktika province, NATO confirmed Thursday that a man killed in an overnight operation Tuesday was a leader of the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction closely tied to al-Qaida. The deputy governor of the province, Juma Mohammedi, said the man led a force of around 20 men.
And in northern Baghlan province, NATO confirmed a senior Taliban leader was killed by Tuesday airstrike. The man was a district commander for the Taliban, said Mahmoud Akmal , the provincial governor's spokesman.
Associated Press Writers Katharine Houreld in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.