Taliban talks plan could get OK
Afghan peace conference may support Karzai
KABUL, Afghanistan — After two days of sometimes acrimonious debate, President Hamid Karzai looked likely to win the support yesterday of a national peace conference for his plan to invite the Taliban to negotiations to end Afghanistan’s years of war.
But delegates differed about exactly what to offer and to whom, and when. They argued over whether the top leadership should be welcomed to the negotiating table. And some said the three-day jirga, as the conference is known, was too short to achieve a meaningful outcome.
The government says it called together the 1,500 provincial, religious, tribal, and other leaders from across the country to advise Karzai on what to try next to end fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghan forces backed by US and NATO troops.
The president wants to offer rank-and-file insurgents amnesties and other incentives to lay down their arms, and to hold talks with top Taliban leaders if they renounce Al Qaeda and vow to uphold the constitution.
Winning the backing of the conference would politically bolster Karzai, who is increasingly unpopular because of corruption in his government and his fraud-marred reelection last year.
But even winning broad support of jirga delegates would only be a tentative first step toward negotiating an end to the nearly nine year conflict in Afghanistan, where violence is running at record levels despite a surge in US forces.
The Taliban have dismissed the jirga as a “phony reconciliation process’’ stacked with Karzai’s supporters, and suicide bombers launched an attack on the opening session Wednesday, which was thwarted. The Taliban insist there will be no negotiations until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, a condition that Karzai could not accept.
While Washington supports overtures to lower-rung insurgents, it is skeptical of a major political initiative with Taliban leaders until militant forces are weakened on the battlefield. US-led NATO troops are preparing a big offensive this summer in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar Province that the Obama administration hopes can help turn the war around.
When jirga delegates meet again today, they are expected to sign off on a joint statement that is sure to endorse peace. But the details of how to handle reconciliation with the Taliban is likely to be couched only in general terms.
“Everybody agrees with peace, and peace without negotiations is not possible,’’ Hamid Gailani, a powerful lawmaker from the Taliban’s heartland province of Kandahar, told the Associated Press after yesterday’s round of closed-door meetings.
Qiamuddin Kashaf, the jirga’s deputy chairman, said there was support for forming a new ministry or commission that could push the reconciliation process forward.
He said that debate among delegates, who were split into committees of about 50 yesterday, was sometimes fierce.
Among key points of difference: whether militant leaders should be removed from a UN blacklist that freezes assets and bars overseas travel, and whether US bounties on the heads of senior Taliban leaders should be lifted.
Khashaf said some delegates want the United States to release Taliban prisoners who are being held as enemy combatants at military prisons at Bagram in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, if there is no evidence they had committed crimes.
“We did not want anyone with strong cases against them released,’’ said Abdul Qader Kuchi, a delegate from eastern Nangahar Province. “We think some of the Taliban should be removed from the blacklist, but not everyone, not those at the very top.’’
Others said any talks with the Taliban must be predicated on the group guaranteeing to uphold women’s rights and other advances achieved since US-backed forces ousted the Taliban regime after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.