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Karzai Says He Has Always Favored Peace Talks With Taliban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has invited the Taliban to peace talks.

(RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai tells RFE/RL that he has long advocated talking to moderate elements within the Taliban but that the international community is only now endorsing and supporting that view.

"During my eight years in office and until today, I have constantly spoken in favor of holding talks with the Taliban and conducting peace talks with the Taliban," Karzai said.

"Until last year, we lacked support from the United States, other Western governments, and NATO, and we had differences over this issue," he added. "Luckily, the Americans did agree and accepted our policy. The conference in London was held to confirm that policy, and we hope that we will be together in its application. We hope that we will execute that policy in cooperation."

Karzai spoke to RFE/RL on the sidelines of the January 28 international conference on Afghanistan in London.

Peace Talks

At the conference, Karzai set the framework for dialogue with Taliban leaders by calling on the Islamist group's leadership to take part in a "loya jirga" (a large assembly of elders) to initiate peace talks.

Reuters news agency reported that the Taliban reached out to the UN's representative to Afghanistan three weeks ago to discuss the idea. Members of the group's leadership council, the Quetta shura, met secretly with Kai Eide to talk about the possibility of a meeting with Kabul, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Karzai said the idea to meet with members of the Taliban reflects his long-held belief that ending the U.S. led-war would always require more than a military solution.

"Now, on our way towards peace and stability, we believe that military action alone can't secure Afghanistan. So we initiated a peace process and negotiations with all our Afghan brothers, no matter with whom they are connected -- the Taliban, Hizb-e Islami, or other groups -- but only those who are not related to Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups and those not holding any extreme ideology against their own land and the world community," he said.

"[We will talk to] those who recognize Afghanistan's Constitution and are interested in Afghanistan's security. We want them back in our society," Karzai added.

Kabul's peace initiative comes as Western powers involved in the Afghanistan conflict are turning up the pressure on Kabul to make progress that will allow them to begin withdrawing combat troops.

Ready To Take Over

At the London conference, leaders and ministers from more than 60 countries gathered to talk about the way forward emerged with an agreement that Afghan forces should take the lead role in providing security in several provinces by late this year and early next.

The Afghan leader said he had tried to deliver the message that the Afghan people are ready and willing to accept responsibility for their country's security and future.

"The London conference was organized according to an Afghan agenda." he said. "Our aim here was to make sure all major efforts related to Afghanistan's future developments, security in Afghanistan and region, and the fight against terror -- as far as what happens within Afghanistan's territory and related to Afghans -- should be organized through Afghans, by Afghans, and under their leadership and by the Afghan government," he said.

The conference also agreed that a fund should be established to pay low-level Taliban fighters to leave the insurgency and support the democratically elected government.

Taliban Buy-Out?

Karzai told RFE/RL that the Taliban has successfully turned "thousands" of Afghans against their own country and that regaining their loyalty has become a priority:

"A very important point here is that we know that there are thousands of our country folk in the hands of others and being used by others against their own land," he said. "These are people who have been deprived of their societies, villages, and homes as a result of our own mistakes, mistakes that have been committed by the international community, NATO, U.S. troops, and others."

He added, "We especially want the huge numbers of young people to come back home. We want to provide them with opportunities and for them to live in accordance and under the guidance of Afghanistan's Constitution."

On January 29, a spokesman for the Taliban said the group's leaders would decide "soon" whether to join peace talks.

Prior to this latest outreach effort, the Taliban repeatedly said negotiations with the Afghan government could only take place when foreign troops had completely withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Some 110,000 NATO-led troops are in Afghanistan, including 70,000 Americans.

Karzai won a small victory on January 25 when a UN Security Council committee removed five former senior Taliban members from its list of individuals facing sanctions over their links to a terrorist organization. Karzai had sought their removal as part of his reconciliation plan.

The UN said in a statement that the five would no longer be subject to international travel bans and asset freezes.

Afghans Only

One of those removed from the list is former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul on January 29 about the plan to invite Taliban members for peace talks.

"I think it is very important that all sides, Afghans, foreigners, and the Taliban, consider the idea of peace and take specific actions to lead us toward peace," Muttawakil said.

"Both sides should give up on setting conditions and start the dialogue from simple positions. Directions must be identified. The opposition party's security should be guaranteed regarding the so-called black list, prisoners, and sanctions. I think, even it is not an easy task, but it is achievable through negotiations, dialogue, and understanding," he added.

But Muttawakil said he wasn't sure the idea of buying off lower-level fighters would work.

"As far the effectiveness of involving money in this process, I look at it as an issue of suspicion, and it is controversial," he said. "First, corruption is something that the current administration in Afghanistan cannot simply deny. It is also lacking in ability."

On the other hand," he added, "[the international community] in the past were making promises of huge amounts of money, but they don't fulfill those promises, which are forgotten."

Above all, Muttawakil said, if peace talks are to succeed, foreigners must be kept out. "Now is the time for an Afghani experience," he said.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report