Karzai invites Taliban head to 'get in touch,' talk peace
Drug trade poses bigger threat than terrorism, he says
KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai said yesterday that a few hundred Taliban fighters have reconciled with the government and suggested militant leader Mullah Omar should ''get in touch" if he wanted to talk peace.
In the context of escalating violence, including suicide attacks, the remarks by Karzai in an interview with the Associated Press were seen as a softening of the government's previous policy against negotiating with leaders of the hard-line militia.
Despite the spike in bloodshed, the US-backed leader said the Taliban's resistance was fading, although he expected suicide attacks to continue in Afghanistan ''for a long time."
Karzai said a booming drug trade presented a greater threat to Afghanistan than terrorism, and endangered its future.
Omar has been in hiding since US-led forces ousted his fundamentalist Islamic regime four years ago for hosting Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Taliban leader has a $10 million US bounty on his head and is believed to be leading holdouts in a rebellion that left about 1,600 people dead last year, the most since 2001.
Karzai, 48, who won a five-year term as the war-battered nation's first democratically elected leader in 2004, invited all Afghans, ''Taliban or non-Taliban," to help rebuild the country, and said that includes Omar.
''If he wants to come, he should get in touch with us," the president said.
''We would see what he has to say, of course," Karzai said. ''But I don't think he will come. He has so much on his hands against Afghanistan. We don't even know as to where he is hiding. He has to first give us an account as to what he's done."
Karzai, who appeared upbeat during the interview at his heavily guarded palace in the snowy capital, said hundreds of Taliban members who are ''not associated with terrorism" have participated in a government reconciliation program.
He said the hunt for Omar and bin Laden, who are believed to be hiding in rugged mountains on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, would continue. ''I am sure we will find them one day."
The president said terrorism has been ''relegated to little more than a nuisance" when compared with the scourge of drugs facing the country.
Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of illegal narcotics, yielding enough opium to make about 450 tons of heroin last year -- sparking warnings the country is fast becoming a ''narco-state."
The problem has criminalized the economy, tainted the country's image, hindered the development of strong government institutions and undermined young people's lives, Karzai said. He said gangs, including some from Europe, threaten to kill farmers if they don't turn to cultivating poppies.
''We have reports of the mafia, from the rest of the world, coming and actively encouraging drugs in Afghanistan," Karzai said. ''They are not only from Russia, they are in Europe, they are in Afghanistan, they are in the neighbors of Afghanistan, they are everywhere."
He said some senior Afghan officials were involved in the illegal trade, but he rejected criticism that he has not been tough enough in dealing with them.
''We have not been given any evidence so far against anyone," Karzai said.
Karzai said the Taliban resistance to his government was fading, but he expected more suicide attacks, which he viewed as a sign of the ''desperation" of antigovernment forces.