- Associated Press - Thursday, October 21, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan government’s newly formed peace council wants Saudi Arabia to play a key role in efforts to reconcile with the Taliban and find a political resolution to the war.

Qiyamuddin Kashaaf, spokesman for the 70-member High Peace Council, said Thursday that Saudi Arabia would be a good place to hold any formal peace talks that develop from exploratory discussions the Afghan government is having with some high-ranking members of the Taliban.

“The Muslim Afghan nation wants to bring peace to this country and is asking Islamic countries: ‘Help your brothers. It is the responsibility of the Muslim world to respond to this request of the Afghan nation,’” Mr. Kashaaf told reporters.

He said that if peace negotiations in Afghanistan are not successful, Saudi King Abdullah should intervene and take a leadership role in fostering talks.

“We want the Saudi king to help,” Mr. Kashaaf said. “If the two sides cannot make peace, my appeal is for the king to take the lead role in the talks.”

Saudi Arabia once had close ties to the Taliban government that emerged victorious from Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s. Pakistan gave diplomatic recognition to Taliban rule in May 1997; recognition followed from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In February, Afghan President Hamid Karzai sent a small delegation of former Taliban members to Saudi Arabia to seek the kingdom’s help in kick-starting talks with the Taliban. But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom would not get involved in peacemaking unless the Taliban severed all ties with Osama bin Laden — a Saudi — and his al Qaeda terror network. That is also a key demand of both the United States and Afghanistan.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters on Thursday that Pakistan supports an Afghan-led reconciliation process.

“We are working toward that end, and we will continue supporting in whatever way … the government of Afghanistan wants us to help,” he said. “We will leave this issue here because it is better not to get into specifics at this stage.”

MR. Kashaaf said the council knows the importance of guaranteeing the security of insurgents who want to talk.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said that the coalition already has helped provide safe passage to insurgent leaders in contact with the Afghan government. While NATO officials confirm that there have been contacts with significant leaders of the Taliban, they caution that the discussions are preliminary.

At the same time that Afghan officials are pushing for peace negotiations, tens of thousands of international forces are pushing deeper into Taliban strongholds, especially in the south. The ability of NATO and Afghan forces to take and hold the southern provinces — and the Afghan government’s ability to win them over — is a key test of President Obama’s decision last year to send 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.

The latest operations in Kandahar province began by encircling Kandahar city with checkpoints. Then extra NATO and Afghan forces, including specialized paramilitary police, flooded into the area and eventually began moving into neighboring Arghandab district to the north. The fertile valley is a breadbasket for the area. Afghan and NATO forces now are moving into the volatile districts of Zhari and Panjwai, trying to consolidate their gains.

It’s been unclear over the past few months how effective the southern offensive has been. Residents have reported pockets of stability, but insurgents continue to target government officials, and in Arghandab the government has struggled to set up a civilian administration despite NATO backing.

A similar operation begun in February in the southern, poppy-producing hub of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province has failed so far to pacify the area completely, in part because the military push was not backed by an effective civilian expansion.

But Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother and leader of the provincial council, said security is improving in Kandahar and Afghan and coalition forces are chasing the Taliban out of the province.

“Things are changing very well. There’s a lot of progress in security. … Some (Taliban) were arrested. Some were killed,” Ahmed Wali Karzai said. “There’s no single Taliban base in Kandahar province right now.”

He said some insurgents left before military operations began.

“They are running. … I don’t know (where).”

Government officials are moving in to set up institutions in areas cleared of Taliban, he said. Improving residents’ quality of life is crucial to winning long-term popular support and maintaining control of territory.

In Kandahar city, one resident said people were less afraid now to turn in information about insurgents.

“The Taliban are weak now, and people are not so afraid of them, so now people can help the government,” said Salam Bacha Barakzai, a 41-year-old teacher. “You can see that Taliban are being arrested everywhere. That’s because the people are helping.”

Separately, NATO said a force member was killed following an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, bringing to 48 the number of NATO troops killed so far this month.

Also in eastern Afghanistan, NATO said 17 senior insurgent fighters were captured or killed between Oct. 12 and Oct. 18.

In western Paktika province, NATO confirmed Thursday that a man killed in an overnight operation Tuesday was a leader of the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction closely tied to al Qaeda. The deputy governor of the province, Juma Mohammedi, said the man led a force of about 20 men.

Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.


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