Afghan government pursues talks with Taliban leaders

KABUL, Afghanistan — Despite U.S. misgivings, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will push his initiative for talks with Taliban leaders during a visit to Saudi Arabia this week, and his top adviser on the reconciliation process with the insurgents said in an interview Monday that the country must learn to forgive the extremist group.

"If they (the Taliban) are willing to join the peace process, then why not?" Masoom Stanekzai, the senior adviser to Karzai on the reintegration and reconciliation plans, told McClatchy. "There are many groups involved in violence, and somebody has to be brought to justice and somebody has to be forgiven."

The Obama administration has repeatedly voiced its opposition to including the Taliban high command in the peace process that's about to be launched in Afghanistan. Karzai, however, is expected to use his visit to Saudi Arabia, which starts Tuesday, to press the kingdom to help broker a deal with the leadership of the Islamic extremist movement.

At a conference in London last month, Karzai's international supporters backed a "reintegration" effort in Afghanistan that's intended to entice rebel foot soldiers into the mainstream. The U.S. and its allies, however, oppose using the separate "reconciliation" track to reach out to Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban leaders who are considered close to al Qaida and haven't accepted the Afghan constitution.

While the West favors a bottom-up approach to engaging with the Taliban, Karzai's U.S.-backed government is pursuing a broader political deal with the insurgents. "We, as Afghans, are trying to reach as high (up the Taliban command) as possible," Karzai said Sunday, adding that he saw an important role for Saudi Arabia because it's the "heart of Islam."

The Taliban espouse an extreme version of the purist Islam favored by the Saudi regime, giving Riyadh clout with them.

The Karzai government's attempts to engage the Taliban leadership are proceeding fast, and the United Nations and Afghan parliamentarians are making separate efforts toward a political settlement to end the violence.

Karzai will meet Saudi King Abdullah this week to ask him to aid the peace process, according to presidential spokesman Siamak Herawi. The Saudis held secret talks between the Afghan government and figures associated with the Taliban in 2008. That produced no results, but the current initiative appears to be more serious.

Karzai advisor Stanekzai said that "confidence-building measures" are needed to convince the international community that a dialogue with insurgent leaders should proceed. He denied rumors that the Saudi visit would bring the Afghan government into contact with the militants, saying there was "no such plan" to meet Taliban representatives in Saudi Arabia.

At an earlier news conference, Stanakzai pushed the theme of forgiveness and said: "We need to look forward and ask ourselves: For how long can we endanger our children for the problems of the past?"

He said that talks already were under way, without giving any detail: "We have contacts on the local, regional, national and — at the same time — broader political level, but it is too early to talk about the outcome of those contacts."

Speaking at the same news conference, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasool said: "Those who are tired of war can start afresh. They can stand to be president of Afghanistan if they first become citizens of Afghanistan."

The Taliban leadership, including founder Mullah Omar, are on a United Nations blacklist, making any dealings with them very sensitive.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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