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Pursuit Of Elusive Peace Could Drive Afghan Government, Taliban To The Table

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid with fellow militants in Helmand Province
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid with fellow militants in Helmand Province
The brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia in which he met with Taliban leaders in a gathering brokered by King Abdullah.

Qayum Karzai has been vague about details of his recent trip to Saudi Arabia as a representative of the Afghan central government. But speaking on October 9, after returning to his hometown of Kandahar, Qayum Karzai said Kabul supported the idea of direct talks with the Taliban leadership in order to end the fighting. He also suggested that he had met with some Taliban in Saudi Arabia.

Karzai's government has been pushing for negotiations with the Taliban at the same time that Western and NATO military commanders have concluded that military action alone cannot bring an end to Afghan violence.

Analysts maintain that one of the main failings of the international stabilization efforts in that country is that the Afghan government and its international backers have not brought the Taliban movement into the political mainstream.

Some former Taliban leaders have joined the central government and are now members of parliament or senior government officials. But United Nations and U.S. sanctions against key Taliban leaders -- including the movement's founder and spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar -- have forced the Taliban underground, pushing them closer ideologically to Al-Qaeda and making them dependent on Pakistani sanctuaries for survival.

Differences over strategy and tactics have led to cracks within the Taliban's rank and file. Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran guerrilla commander from the 1980s, has openly questioned Mullah Omar's leadership.

Moreover, the Taliban are not the only armed opponents of Kabul. Another key militant leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was prime minister in the mid-1990s, has never been a member of the Taliban movement. He maintains Hizb-e Islami -- a separate organization that also carries out attacks on Afghan and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan. Analysts, therefore, maintain that a compromise with the Omar-led Taliban might not translate into a comprehensive settlement.

For the past seven years, most Afghans have described peace and security as their top concern. Afghanistan's political elite has been divided, however, over the question of negotiations with the Taliban.

One of the country's most powerful opposition alliances, the National United Front, has expressed support for reconciliation with the Taliban despite strident anti-Taliban credentials among its founders and senior members. But the National United Front has qualified its support for such a process by saying it must be "transparent" and should proceed through the parliament, where the bloc has a strong presence.

"Negotiations and talks are the only way for restoring peace and fighting cannot resolve this conflict," Miangul Khalid a spokesman for the National United Front, told RFE/RL.

Haji Atta Muhammad, a tribal elder in the southern Kandahar Province, a main focus of Taliban activities, told RFE/RL recently that an overwhelming majority of Afghans simply want peace. "Achieving peace and reconciliation is achievable and it is not impossible," he said. "But the Taliban are influenced by the foreigners, and the Afghan government is not any better."

Word Gets Out

Reports have emerged over the past week that the Saudi royal family was facilitating talks aimed at a tenable agreement to drastically reduce the bloodshed in Afghanistan.

"According to our religious beliefs, Saudi Arabia is the center of Islam," Qayum Karzai said after his return to Kandahar, "and it can provide a nice neutral venue and framework for moving forward with [future] negotiations."

The president's brother also maintained that there would be no military solution to the conflict -- a view that is increasingly supported by U.S. and NATO commanders on the ground in Afghanistan.

"The general perception everywhere is that the ongoing war will not lead to a solution," Karzai said. "A lot of efforts are going on to restore peace to Afghanistan. It is very important [to figure out] how can we bring peace to our homeland. The first prerequisite is that Afghans should control these peace efforts."

Reports in the Saudi media provide more details about the meeting there. They describe Qayum Karzai as the head of a 16-member Afghan delegation that met with Taliban leaders in a gathering brokered by the Saudi royal family.

A spokesman for the Afghan government, Asif Nang, confirmed that such a gathering did take place in Saudi Arabia last week. Nang told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that it was an "informal meeting" -- a dinner hosted by the Saudi royal family -- and that there were no planned talks or negotiations.

Competing Aims

The Taliban maintains that the presence of international forces on Afghan soil still provides their movement and other militants with a common cause.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Radio Free Afghanistan that there cannot be trust between the Taliban and Karzai's government as long as Taliban continue to be killed and the U.S. government offers a bounty for Taliban leaders.

"As long as there are foreign forces in Afghanistan and they control our land and airspace, we don't think peace negotiations will have any effect," Mujahid said. "It will only distract us so that they can continue spilling Afghan blood. So it will have no other advantage."

The Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaif, predicted to Radio Free Afghanistan that Karzai's government will only be able to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan if he can convince the United States that military action is not the right solution.

"I think a huge problem that exists in Afghanistan today is an environment of distrust. The big question here is whether or not the Americans, as main players in this game, are willing to stop the war in Afghanistan. Are they committed to bringing peace to Afghanistan through negotiations or not?" Zaif said. "If Americans show a positive attitude toward this, then the current government of Afghanistan -- with support of religious scholars -- can play a role, too. If Americans are not truly in favor of boosting peace in Afghanistan, I don't think any other kind of negotiations would be effective."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Budapest on October 9 that Washington would be prepared to reconcile with the Taliban if the Afghan government pursues talks to end the war. But Gates said the United States will not consider any negotiations with Al-Qaeda.

"This is a decision for the Afghan government," Patrick Moon, the U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, told RFE/RL this week. "The Afghan government will speak for the people of Afghanistan, not the United States. We, of course, are supporting the Afghan government. And we are very interested in reaching a peaceful solution in Afghanistan. But we look to the Afghan government to make these decisions."

Moon went on to say that Washington expects President Karzai's decision on future negotiations with the Taliban to be contingent upon whether the Taliban agree to lay down their weapons and support the Afghan Constitution.

"I think any decision by the Afghan government would be based upon whether the Taliban or the other insurgent groups are willing to support the constitution of Afghanistan, whether they are willing to lay down their arms and return to their homes, and peace, and to support an effort that will lead to the best interest of the people of Afghanistan," Moon said.

RFE/RL Washington correspondent Heather Maher and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this story

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