Afghan peace conference mulls talks with Taliban

Delegates discuss whether the government should negotiate with top Taliban leaders to seek an end to the war.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN // Delegates to an Afghan peace conference today discussed whether the government should negotiate with top Taliban leaders to seek an end to almost nine years of war. The deliberations involve about 1,500 religious, tribal, provincial and other leaders picked by the government to advise the president, Hamid Karzai, about the next steps to take to end the insurgency. The Taliban are not attending the peace jirga, as it is known, though some delegates sympathise with the insurgents. A suicide attack aimed at the jirga as it opened in Kabul on Wednesday underscored the Taliban's opposition, though it failed to disrupt the meeting.

Mr Karzai's government says it organised the gathering to gauge the mood of ordinary Afghans toward negotiations with the Taliban. The Obama administration supports overtures to rank-and-file insurgents but is sceptical of a major political initiative with Taliban leaders until militant forces are weakened on the battlefield. Nato troops are preparing a big offensive this summer in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.

Delegates are also split over whether concessions should be offered to militant leaders, raising doubts that the jirga will achieve a meaningful way forward within its three-day time frame. The conference is to wrap up tomorrow with a final statement that is sure to endorse peace in general terms. Any other details were still being hashed out. The Taliban have dismissed the jirga as a "phony reconciliation process" stacked with Mr Karzai's supporters. They insist they will not negotiate until all foreign troops leave the country.

Delegates divided into 28 committees today to discuss issues including whether the government should negotiate directly with Taliban leaders, and if so, which ones. They are to report back to the jirga chairman. In interviews outside the grand tent where the conference is being held, delegates disagreed over whether the government should talk with Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar. Mr Karzai has repeatedly said Mr Omar should be invited for talks, but only if he accepts the Afghan constitution and renounces al Qa'eda. Mr Karzai held talks with leaders of another Taliban-allied group, Hizb-i-Islami, last March.

"We have to have direct talks with the leaders or there will be no peace," said Kabul lawmaker Syed Hassain Alumi Balkhi. Lal Mohammed, a delegate representing about 1.2 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, said all Taliban prisoners should be freed too. "We need to create an atmosphere for talks, and unless we can offer them some guarantees, they won't talk peace," he said. But Gul Agha Pirzada, a delegate from northern Takhar province, wanted no mention of talks with Taliban leaders in the final communiqué.

"We want peace, but these leaders have killed innocent people and they are with al Qa'eda and they are the ones who have killed innocent Afghans," he said. Also being discussed is whether militant leaders should be removed from a UN blacklist that freezes assets and bars overseas travel. A total of 137 people associated with the Taliban and 258 with al Qa'eda are on the list. Some delegates want Washington to withdraw rewards it has offered for the capture of senior Taliban leaders. Omar has a US$5 million (Dh18m) price on his head.

Some delegates had low hopes for the jirga. Haji Shomali, a delegate from eastern Nangahar province, said the key to peace is getting Pakistan and Iran - Afghanistan's eastern and western neighbours - to stop fomenting the insurgency. "This fight will not be solved by the jirga," said Mr Shomali, whose province borders Pakistan. "If the US and Nato want their fight to stop then they should work on Pakistan and Iran to stop interfering."

In an opening address on Wednesday, Mr Karzai urged militant fighters to lay down their arms, saying it was the way to get NATO troops to leave. "Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here," Mr Karzai said. As he spoke, Taliban fighters fired rockets at the venue, triggering a battle with security forces that killed at least two militants. Three civilians, but no delegates, were wounded.

While the United States has been reluctant to embrace talks with the Taliban leadership, government minister Farooq Wardak maintained that Mr Karzai has received a promise from the "very highest" level within the US and British governments "that they will support the jirga". * AP