Afghanistan forms Taliban council

President Hamid Karzai will announce the members of the panel, tasked with negotiating peace with the militant group, after Eid.

KABUL // A long-awaited peace council designed to help kick-start negotiations with the Taliban has been set up in Afghanistan, the president announced yesterday. News of the council's formation three months after a grand assembly of tribal elders and religious leaders approved the idea comes as violence in the country is at record levels and taking root in once stable areas.

The move was described as "a significant step towards peace talks" by the office of the president, Hamid Karzai, but huge obstacles will need to be overcome if people are to be convinced of the council's worth. The Taliban continue to reject any attempt at negotiations while foreign troops remain in the country. Just last week, the rebels issued a statement asking Muslims worldwide to pray for their victory in the final days of Ramadan.

The council's members are to be announced after Eid and will include "jihadi leaders, influential figures and women", according to the president's office. The sheer size of the task ahead has been made grimly clear in recent weeks, with a number of sophisticated Taliban attacks and fresh allegations of civiliandeaths at the hands of Nato-led forces. The death toll for foreign troops so far in 2010 is at least 495 compared with 521 for all of 2009. A recent United Nations report found that Afghan casualties were at record levels in the first six months of this year.

Although some efforts have been made towards negotiations with the rebels in the past, the High Peace Council will be one of the few very public steps in that process. A handful of former Taliban officials not involved with the insurgency have previously been taken off a UN sanctions list. And in the spring, representatives from another militant group, Hizb-e-Islami, met with government officials to lay out their demands, which included an end to the occupation.

The United States has accepted that some kind of political settlement will ultimately be needed to end the war, but has ruled out negotiating with senior members of the Taliban such as the movement's spiritual head, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Mr Karzai's decision to consult with former mujaheddin leaders about the make-up of the peace council could prove to be an additional stumbling block in any potential talks with the Taliban. They played a key role in the sectarian violence that devastated Kabul between 1992 and 1996 and the Taliban often despise them every bit as much as the foreign troops.

Meanwhile, some Afghans yesterday continued pulling funds out of the nation's largest bank despite assurances from government leaders that their money was safe, the Associated Press reported. Crowds gathered at Kabul Bank branches around the capital to withdraw dollar and Afghan currency savings, with customers saying they had lost faith in the bank's solvency.