In Afghanistan, Karzai's invitation to Taliban creates discord and confusion

By Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's public invitation to the Taliban to attend a peace conference this spring has sparked disagreement and confusion among the many players in Afghanistan over the shape and speed of negotiations and what they should ultimately accomplish.

As U.S., NATO and Afghan forces continue a major operation in Helmand province in the south and prepare for another in neighboring Kandahar, the Obama administration has argued that substantive talks should wait until the military balance has shifted more sharply in favor of the coalition.

But the administration's British allies, facing strong domestic disapproval over the long-running war, appear eager to see negotiations begin sooner rather than later. That position is shared by a number of senior U.S. military officials, who predicted that negotiations with insurgents could gain traction as early as this year.

"I would not be surprised if we see Taliban from the south ending up in the parliament, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," said one military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Such remarks could be aimed at sowing suspicion and discord within enemy ranks, a priority on both sides of the war. There are few visible signs that senior Taliban members are open to negotiation, or that they might break from the head of the group, Mohammad Omar. The insurgents have publicly disclaimed any interest in discussions until the departure of "infidel" foreign troops.

But Karzai's effusive invitation, made in late January at an international conference on Afghanistan held in London, has unleashed widespread speculation that discussion of reconciliation -- previously seen as psychological warfare and political gamesmanship -- could lead to substantive talks, or perhaps already has. Kabul has been awash with rumors, with Afghan human rights organizations warning that Karzai plans to forgive countless Taliban atrocities and place insurgent leaders in high-level government positions.

"I think it's just legalizing impunity," said Sima Samar, who chairs the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "Nobody is accountable, not for the past crimes and not for future ones. Anybody can come and join the government and they will be protected."

Some senior Pakistani officials have suggested that U.S. or Afghan officials were in touch with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's No. 2 commander, before he was captured last month during a Pakistani-U.S. intelligence operation in the port city of Karachi. U.S. officials have denied any contact with the Taliban. If anyone had been talking to the group, the Americans say, it was the Pakistanis, who have been known to play both sides of the war.

These officials and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, to avoid the appearance that they were interfering in what the coalition has described as an internal Afghan issue.

London conference

Some coalition members, fearing that a rush to dialogue could critically destabilize Afghanistan's fragile government, said Britain pushed Karzai to move further than he had intended at the London conference, a charge a British official "categorically" denied.

"What we wanted was to use that [conference] to create political space for the conversation on reconciliation. That's true," the official said. The midwife role is easier for Britain to play than the United States, he said, because the British public is more eager to leave Afghanistan and is less concerned about "things like women's rights."

But the British, he said, were trying to hold the Afghan president from going too far with reconciliation.

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