Delegates at Afghan peace conference back Karzai's plan to talk to Taliban

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 5, 2010

KABUL -- Afghan leaders attending a national peace conference decided Friday to back President Hamid Karzai's plan to broker a truce with the Taliban but fell short of delivering a clear strategy for negotiating with the militant group.

The government-appointed delegates to the conference, known as a "peace jirga," urged Karzai to push for the removal of certain insurgent leaders from a U.N. sanctions list, for the release of some detainees in American custody and for the U.S.-led international force to do more to avoid civilian casualties.

But some of the event's organizers acknowledged that a truce with the Taliban remains elusive and that the jirga was just the beginning of what is likely to be a long, challenging process. The Taliban, which sees the Karzai government as the byproduct of a foreign invasion, denounced the gathering and launched an attack near the site on the opening day of the three-day gathering.

"The struggle for obtaining peace has not ended," said Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was appointed to lead the jirga.

Many Afghans, including some delegates, criticized the meeting as fruitless.

"I was not satisfied," said Muhtara Maha Bibi, 42, a delegate from Badghis province in northeastern Afghanistan. "Everything we concluded was already planned."

The gathering of roughly 1,600 delegates did not put forward controversial proposals in its concluding statement. Unlike past jirgas, which have served as debate forums for dueling sides, there were few signs of dissent or radical viewpoints. No active Taliban leaders participated.

In his closing remarks, Karzai invited the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami, a smaller insurgent group, to "take advantage of this opportunity."

Karzai has long sought to break the insurgency by urging Taliban foot soldiers to reconcile with the government. But the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and his administration's inability to provide jobs and safety for many who have renounced militant violence have slowed his efforts.

"Fifty percent of the Taliban are good people," said Mohammed Khabir Amani, 39, a delegate from Takhar province in northeastern Afghanistan. "Something must be done for them in terms of jobs, a place to live and security."

U.S. officials had worried that the gathering could become a forum for airing grievances against foreign troops. In the end, though, Karzai and the delegates were circumspect in their criticism of foreign military operations. Karzai said his country would need robust foreign military support for some time to come.

Stepped-up U.S.-led military efforts in Kandahar, a southern province that the Taliban regards as its spiritual heartland, created an awkward backdrop for the reconciliation talks.

As the conference was wrapping up, the NATO command in Afghanistan announced that the top Taliban leader in Kandahar city had been killed in a military operation last week. In a statement, the military said Mullah Zergay was gunned down when coalition troops came under fire as they approached his hideout.

Also on Friday, a NATO soldier was fatally shot in southern Afghanistan, the military said in a statement.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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