- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai’s announcement that he has held talks with the Taliban has opened a rift between his Pashtun backers and mainly Tajik northerners, who have coalesced in a new opposition party led by parliament speaker Younus Qanooni.

“For us, his admission last week that he has been talking to the Taliban comes as a complete surprise,” Mr. Qanooni said yesterday as he reclined in the well-appointed salon of his home and fingered a set of red prayer beads. “We were not informed about these closed-curtain talks, which can never come to any good.”

The president’s supporters said the unexpected announcement last week of negotiations with the Taliban leadership was long overdue, and hinted that Mr. Karzai had acted with the approval of Washington and its NATO allies.

“If serious peace talks had been carried out earlier, this country would be in a much stronger position today,” said an Afghan-American member of parliament, Daoud Sultanzoy, who has many Taliban-leaning Pashtun constituents in his district of Ghazni province.

“The northern thugs who oppose this, including Mr. Qanooni, prefer that the Pashtuns keep fighting in the south so they can enrich themselves.”

Mr. Qanooni is a leading player in a new opposition alliance dominated by the same northern-based ethnic groups that helped U.S. forces overthrow the Taliban in 2001. The United National Front’s members include former Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Prince Mustafa Zahir, the grandson of the deposed and ailing King Mohammad Zahir Shah.

The parliament speaker is criticizing Mr. Karzai, who retains strong U.S. backing, as leaders of a resurgent Taliban foster closer ties with the al Qaeda terrorist network, now based in sanctuaries inside neighboring Pakistan.

Western diplomats say they are increasingly concerned about the “Talibanization” of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, which they think is being directed and assisted by senior al Qaeda operatives based in Pakistan as well as rogue elements within Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Afghan officials close to Mr. Karzai say concerns about the talks with the Taliban are grossly overblown. For several years, Mr. Karzai, who is from the heavily Pashtun south of the country, has engaged in a delicate effort to lure midlevel and senior Taliban members away from their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and bring them back into the political fold.

Afghan intelligence officials have offered to drop or reduce charges against captured Taliban operatives in exchange for information. Senior Taliban warlords have broken ranks with their hard-core movement to work with Mr. Karzai’s government in a reconciliation process monitored by American diplomats.

The growing dispute about how to deal with the Taliban — whether to kill and capture them or negotiate for peace — highlights the nation’s traditional fears of foreign influence, particularly meddling from neighboring Pakistan.

Analysts said Mr. Karzai’s opponents, many affiliated with the new Tajik-dominated northern block, fear that the Taliban, as it grows stronger in the hinterlands, will exert increasing influence in larger towns and cities as well as within political circles in Kabul.

The Taliban has promised a major spring offensive targeting U.S. bases in the east and British and Canadian bases in the south. If the insurgents manage through threats and intimidation to assert more power in the remote regions of Afghanistan, it is feared that the movement will gain a stronger foothold in towns and cities.

Though the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan has vowed to “capture or kill” what officials call “Tier 1 Taliban” fighters, that view of the struggle also is evolving.

A senior European official said: “The problem is that every time you kill one of them, you get 10 family members rising up to put a contract out on foreign forces. It is a little like the Sicilian or Corsican Mafia here, in that revenge is a kind of social contract that is considered a necessary response to any death.”

Efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of young Taliban fighters through humanitarian projects and offers of gainful employment have an increasing priority over direct military engagement, he added.

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