Afghans, Pakistanis Opt to Talk to Taliban

By Shaiq Hussain
Special to the Washington Post
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 28 -- Pakistani and Afghan leaders on Tuesday agreed to make contact with insurgent groups, including the Taliban, in a bid to end bloodshed and violence in their troubled border regions.

Leaders from the neighboring countries reached the decision here at the end of a two-day jirgagai, or mini-tribal council, which was attended by 50 officials and tribal elders from both sides.

The meeting was held as a follow-up to a grand tribal jirga in Kabul in August 2007. "We agreed that contacts should be established with the opposition in both countries, joint contacts through the mini-tribal council," said former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, leader of the Afghan delegation.

Abdullah said the door for negotiations was open for opposition forces in Afghanistan.

When asked to clarify whether the opposition included the Taliban and other militant groups, Owais Ghani, the head of the Pakistani delegation and governor of the troubled North-West Frontier Province, said, "Yes, it includes all those who are involved in this conflict situation."

"We will sit, we will talk to them, they will listen to us, and we will come to some sort of solution. Without dialogue, we cannot have any sort of conclusion," Ghani said.

Both governments have wrestled in recent months with the question of how to confront a vigorous insurgency that has spilled over from the border region and threatens wide swaths of Pakistan and Afghanistan, including this capital city and the Afghan capital of Kabul. The essential question is whether to fight the insurgents, talk with them or do both at once. Government and public sentiment has been leaning lately toward negotiations.

The United States, too, has of late indicated a greater willingness to allow talks, with the goal of peeling off more moderate insurgents from those considered irreconcilable.

Abdullah said the mini-jirga had recommended that both countries deny sanctuary to the terrorists and insurgent elements that are waging war against the Afghan and Pakistani governments. "There is an urgent and imperative need for dialogue and negotiations with the opposition groups in both countries, with a view to finding a peaceful settlement of the ongoing conflict," read a statement released by the council. The council agreed to meet again in three months to evaluate progress.

Pakistan hosted the meeting at a time when it is confronting a grave balance-of-payments crisis. Pakistani authorities say the country has just a few weeks to raise billions of dollars in foreign loans to meet huge debt payments.

To overcome the financial crunch, it is negotiating a deal with the International Monetary Fund and has approached friendly states such as the United States, China and Saudi Arabia for aid.

During a visit to the Pakistani capital on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Pakistan has just a "few days" to avert a financial crisis.

Addressing a joint news conference here with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, he said Pakistan must secure a loan from the IMF. "I hope the decision will be taken soon. It won't help to have it in six months or six weeks. Rather, we need it in the coming six days," he said. "Then one can perhaps avoid the most difficult situation in Pakistan."

He said Germany would help Pakistan in reaching a deal with the IMF.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company