Afghanistan's Karzai Offers Safety if Taliban Leader Will Negotiate

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 17, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 16 -- As international pressure mounts for negotiations with insurgents, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that he would guarantee the security of Taliban chief Mohammad Omar if he decides to enter into talks.

Striking a defiant tone, Karzai said during a news conference in the Afghan capital that if the Taliban leader agreed to negotiate a peace settlement with Karzai's government, he would resist demands from the international community to hand over Omar to U.S. authorities.

"As for Mullah Omar and his associates, if I hear from him that he is willing to come to Afghanistan or to negotiate for peace and for liberty so that our children will not be killed anymore, I as the president of Afghanistan will go to any length to provide him security," Karzai said.

"If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices: Remove me or leave," he added.

Karzai delivered his remarks after weeks of speculation that negotiations are already underway between the Afghan government and insurgent leaders. In September, several representatives from Karzai's government met with former Taliban leaders in Saudi Arabia. That meeting was widely viewed as the potential first step on what could be a long road to a negotiated settlement to end the decades-long conflict in Afghanistan.

With violence hitting new highs as the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan enters its eighth year, U.S. and NATO officials have recently indicated increasing support for talks with Islamist insurgents as one way to rein in fighting across the country. While U.S. military officials have called for NATO allies to augment the estimated 62,000 foreign troops already operating in Afghanistan, Afghan and U.S. officials have tacitly acknowledged that negotiating with moderate Taliban commanders is a key part of a strategy currently under consideration by Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command.

Omar, the enigmatic and highly reclusive Taliban leader, hardly fits the profile of a moderate. Since his public refusal to turn over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to U.S. authorities following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he has held a prominent place on a list of U.S.-designated global terrorists. Known to his followers as "the commander of the faithful," Omar rose to power in the southern province of Kandahar in the mid-1990s after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan plunged the country into a chaotic civil war.

A fierce military commander who was wounded several times in battle, Omar ruled the country until the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

Intelligence experts believe Omar now leads his fighters from a haven near the southern Pakistani city of Quetta. The U.S. has offered a multimillion-dollar reward for Omar's capture.

Omar's alliance with other insurgent groups, most notably the pro-Taliban network of Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, has given insurgent forces greater reach across the country, enabling them to carry out attacks almost daily.

Taliban spokesmen have so far rejected the idea of talks.

Karzai said his government is willing to talk with any insurgent group that agrees to accept and respect the Afghan constitution. But talks with groups involved with al-Qaeda are out of the question, Karzai said. The Afghan president also cautioned that discussions with insurgent leaders such as Omar remain a long way off while violence continues to plague the country.

"We are not at that stage yet. Right now I have to hear from the Taliban leadership that they are willing to have peace in Afghanistan," Karzai said. "They must prove themselves."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company