KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai got a modest political boost Friday when a national peace conference backed his efforts to launch substantive talks with the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent forces.
At the end of a choreographed three-day gathering of 1,600 selected delegates, the conference endorsed Karzai's push for peace talks to bring an end to nearly nine years of war.
"You have charted the way, and we will follow it," Karzai assured the delegates in his closing address in a cavernous tent on the Kabul university campus where he'd been tapped in 2001 to become the country's first post-Taliban-era president.
After emotional debates and a jarring Taliban attack on Wednesday's opening ceremony, the gathering urged Taliban leaders to distance themselves from al Qaida and open talks with Karzai.
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The final resolution called on the United Nations to remove militant Taliban leaders from its blacklist, a controversial proposal that could make it easier for Karzai to reach out to the most notorious and influential insurgents.
Such a step isn't without precedent. Earlier this year, the U.N. Security Council removed five former Taliban officials from the blacklist.
On Friday, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of international military forces in Afghanistan, looked on as the assembly also called on U.S. officials to make a good-faith gesture by releasing some Afghan prisoners from their detention centers.
International leaders joined Afghan delegates in hailing the gathering as a step in the right direction. The U.N.'s Afghan mission called it an "important stepping-stone" in the peace process, while the U.S. Embassy welcomed the discussions as the beginning of a process.
"It was a good starting place, but now it depends on the other side," said Zalmay Yunesi, a delegate from northern Afghanistan.
Officially, the Taliban leadership has shown little inclination to engage in talks. On Friday, the Taliban again belittled the gathering on one of their websites as a "waste of time." Their statement accused Karzai of doing the bidding of his Western backers and misusing Afghanistan's tradition of solving problems by bringing leaders together in jirgas.
Taliban hard-liners made their opposition clear on the first day of the assembly, when two or three militants targeted the tent with rockets in an attempt to derail the discussions.
Before any talks can proceed, Karzai has demanded that Taliban leaders renounce violence, sever ties with al Qaida and accept Afghanistan's modern constitution.
The Taliban leadership says it won't talk peace until the U.S.-led military forces — now topping 100,000_leave Afghanistan.
Karzai already has begun pursuing talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Taliban ally who leads the insurgent group Hizb-i-Islami, and the president has dispatched special envoys to join preliminary talks with Afghan insurgent leaders.
One Hizb-i-Islami member who took part in the Kabul gathering said he supported the push for peace but was upset that the final statement didn't criticize destabilizing Afghan warlords along with the Taliban.
The man, a teacher from Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province, said government backing for warlords with militias undercut the efforts to win support.
"The government creates militias and it makes people turn to the Taliban," said the teacher, who declined to give his name because of his ties to the insurgents.
Lingering concerns were also evident Friday when two female participants in the gathering briefly disrupted Karzai's speech with a demand to speak.
Other delegates were upset that more concrete proposals, such as an immediate cease-fire and a firm timetable for removing international forces from Afghanistan, weren't in the final statement.
To push the process forward, the assembly called on Karzai to form a special committee and ask world leaders to endorse the proposals next month when they come to Kabul for an international conference.
While the results of the gathering were modest, Western officials consider the jirga part of a political process that's intended to move in parallel with the growing military force that's battling the Taliban across Afghanistan.
Western strategists are hoping that the military campaign will pressure the Taliban and their allies to capitulate.
"This was the voice of the Afghan nation," Karzai said. "Welcome this voice, and come build this land; make it peaceful and secure."
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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