- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010

LONDON | The Afghan government on Thursday invited Taliban insurgents to a peace council of elders as part of efforts to find a way out of a conflict trying the patience and resources of Afghanistan’s Western allies.

In an indication of the quickening pace of diplomacy, a U.N. official said members of the Taliban’s leadership council had secretly met the United Nations representative for Afghanistan to discuss the possibility of laying down their arms.

As leaders and foreign ministers from 60 nations convened in London to discuss Afghanistan, the official told Reuters that members of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura had met U.N. special representative Kai Eide on Jan. 8 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“They requested a meeting to talk about talks. They want protection, to be able to come out in public. They don’t want to vanish into places like Bagram,” the official said, referring to a detention center at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.

The official said it was the first time such talks had been held with members of the Taliban’s top council, which U.S. officials say is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

At the London conference, nations agreed that Afghan forces should aim to take the lead role in providing security in a number of provinces by late 2010 or early 2011, opening the road for a reduction in foreign troops.

“We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al Qaeda, or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at the conference.

The United States and its allies would not be involved in the council, known as a loya jirga, and have said they want to leave it up to the Afghans to seek reconciliation.

At the same time, President Obama is sending in 30,000 more troops to weaken the insurgency and persuade the Taliban to accept a peace deal, which would require them to sever ties with al Qaeda militants.

More than 110,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan, including about 70,000 Americans.

“You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency or so marginalizes the remaining insurgents that it doesn’t pose a threat to the stability and security of the people,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said $140 million had been pledged toward an international fund to help reintegrate Taliban foot soldiers into society. Japan said it would provide $50 million toward that fund.

Western governments have stressed there could be no compromise with those who maintained links with al Qaeda.

But the West’s attitude to involving at least some elements of the Afghan Taliban, once demonized over its human rights record and treatment of women before being ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, appears to be softening.

The Dubai meeting was at a higher level than earlier known talks, which took place in Saudi Arabia between former Taliban officials and representatives of the Afghan government in 2008.

Mr. Karzai also called on Saudi Arabia, which has hosted talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives in the past, to help bring peace to Afghanistan.

In response, Saudi Arabia said it would take part in peace efforts only if the Taliban denied sanctuary to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and cut ties with militant networks.

Mr. Karzai also said Afghanistan needed the support of its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to secure peace. Washington contends that Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar and other leaders are based in Pakistan - a charge Islamabad denies.

Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government before it was overthrown, is seen as well placed to mediate any talks.



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