Afghan president plans meeting on reintegrating, reconciling with insurgents

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; A10

LONDON -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that he will convene a nationwide meeting of tribal, religious and political leaders in the next few weeks to discuss reintegrating and reconciling with insurgents. Afghan government officials said Taliban members would also be welcome to attend.

U.S. officials, who strongly support reintegration of low-level Taliban fighters but have drawn a bright red line against dealings with insurgents who have not forsworn violence or who have ties to al-Qaeda, appeared unsure of what Karzai had in mind.

Speaking to a one-day meeting of foreign ministers from nearly 70 countries here, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Karzai called on Saudi Arabia, which has offered to serve as a go-between with Taliban leaders, to play a "prominent role" in a process of "peace and reconciliation." He asked "all our neighbors, particularly Pakistan," where top Taliban leaders are based, to support it.

"We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers," Karzai told the gathering, which was convened by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to bolster international resolve and solidify a new strategy for the eight-year-old war.

"We didn't know they were going to do it," a senior Obama administration official said of the apparent breadth of Karzai's invitation. "We're very enthusiastic about reintegration," the official said. "We're not here to discuss reconciliation." That term generally refers to a negotiated settlement between opposing forces. The official said reconciliation did not come up in closed-door meetings Thursday, and it was not mentioned in a final communique that welcomed Karzai's outreach to "those willing to renounce violence" and "cut ties with al-Qaeda."

The conference covered a wide range of issues, with Karzai pledging to tackle corruption and saying that "the aspirations and demands of the people of Afghanistan today can be summarized in four simple words: Afghan leadership, Afghan ownership." International partners expressed confidence that President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy and increased troop numbers would be decisive on the battlefield and promised to better coordinate development assistance among each other and with the Afghans.

Several governments announced contributions of additional troops to the Afghan effort, including as many as 850 from Germany and 500 from Spain. There were additional pledges to boost support for Afghan police training and civilian personnel.

The communique said Afghanistan's backers would provide "the necessary support to the phased growth and expansion of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police in order to reach 171,600 and 134,000 personnel by October 2011." It endorsed a transition to Afghan security control in selected provinces, to begin "by late 2010/early 2011." Obama has said U.S. combat troops will begin a phased withdrawal, based on ground conditions, in July 2011.

"The biggest deliverable of all" from the gathering, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said at a news conference, was "unity and cohesion in the international effort, and the alignment between" that effort and "a clear Afghan plan" that will be further spelled out at a follow-up conference in Kabul this spring.

But the meeting was dominated by talk about talks with insurgents, which Karzai said was his first priority.

The event followed a flurry of recent reports about negotiations with at least some Taliban factions, including a report by Reuters on Thursday that members of the Taliban's leadership council had met secretly with a U.N. representative on Jan. 8 in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to discuss laying down their arms.

The Obama administration has emphasized that there is no purely military solution to the Afghanistan war and that it ultimately must be resolved politically. "You don't make peace with your friends," Clinton said at a news conference Thursday. "You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency or . . . marginalizes the remaining insurgents."

Participants in the conference pledged $140 million to a "reintegration fund" to provide jobs and security to reformed insurgents-- a figure that is projected to total as much as $500 million over five years. Clinton said the United States will not contribute to the fund, although the U.S. military has authorized "significant" expenditures for reintegration efforts out of its own funds.

Those funds apparently are exempt from Treasury Department restrictions against any monetary connection with members of groups the United States has designated as terrorist organizations, including the Taliban. A senior State Department official said that an official U.S. contribution to the new fund would require a presidential waiver.

The Afghans themselves seemed unsure Thursday about whether any Afghan would be ruled out of attendance at the proposed meeting, or jirga, and whether participants had to first forswear violence and pledge to abide by Afghan law. U.S. officials said they did; Afghans appeared to leave the matter open.

Karzai said only that his offer applied "especially" to those "who are not part of al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution." But he noted that the United Nations this week dropped five Taliban members from its terrorist blacklist, and he encouraged "more progress in this regard."

Outgoing Afghan foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, representing his government at the news conference with Miliband, said that even "hard-liner, ideology-oriented" Taliban members had to be "encouraged for reconciliation."

U.S. officials noted that the Taliban leadership has issued a number of public statements in recent days denouncing the reintegration program. One official said that U.S. intelligence and military commanders had reported increasingly frequent "reach-outs" from low-level fighters seeking assimilation.

During her two-day stay here, Clinton held separate talks with members of the P5+1 group (permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) on negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Officials reported little progress in a meeting she held with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, whose government has resisted a U.S. push for new U.N. sanctions against Iran.

Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan, and its foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, was invited to attend the conference. "For some inexplicable reason, he chose not to," Miliband said.

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