- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 31, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s president appealed to Taliban fighters on Sunday to lay down their weapons and accept Afghan laws as the government and its international allies push a program to entice militants away from the insurgency.

President Hamid Karzai spoke three days after he and Western backers agreed at a conference in London to create a more comprehensive program to bring Taliban insurgents over to the government’s side in order to reduce violence that has raged in recent years.

Incentives have existed for years for the Taliban to stop fighting, but these generally have been ineffective, attracting only the lowest-level fighters with no guarantees they wouldn’t return to the insurgency or that promised aid would come through.

And despite incentives, the insurgency has expanded steadily in the past six years. In 2004, NATO estimated that fewer than 400 Taliban were left in Afghanistan. By last year that figure had grown to nearly 25,000, with the latest estimates in early 2010 putting the number of insurgents at close to 30,000.

Mr. Karzai stressed he plans to reconcile with Taliban leaders as much as they are willing, but he made clear his offer of reconciliation did not extend to anyone in al Qaeda, saying there was no room in Afghanistan for terrorists.

“We are trying our best to reach as high as possible to bring peace and security,” Mr. Karzai said in his first news conference since returning from London.

Mr. Karzai has said previously he is willing to talk to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and welcome back any militants who are willing to recognize the Afghan constitution. However, the Taliban always has set the withdrawal of international troops as a precondition for any negotiations.

Mr. Karzai called that unrealistic, saying the NATO coalition should be expected to stay until they achieve their goal of removing al Qaeda and other terrorist threats.

Afghanistan’s international backers agreed in London to provide funding for a renewed effort to woo Taliban away from al Qaeda and the insurgency, given the commitment of the Afghan government to institute a more comprehensive and thorough program, including jobs and education. The details will be worked out in a meeting of elders, clerics and other representatives to be held “very soon,” Mr. Karzai said.

Mr. Karzai is scheduled to travel this week to Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries that recognized the Taliban regime before it was ousted in 2001 and whose leaders have acted as intermediaries before. Mr. Karzai declined to say if he planned to discuss the new reconciliation plan with the Saudis.

“The role of Saudi Arabia is extremely important for Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said. “This role we’re seeking is not only for talks with the Taliban. It’s a broader role that we’re seeking, which is for peace-building in Afghanistan, for improved relations with our nations, and for reconstruction and assistance.”

Saudi Arabia pledged an additional $150 million in aid to Afghanistan at the London conference.

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