Afghan President Hamid Karzai got a modest political boost Friday when a national peace conference backed his efforts to begin substantive talks with the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent forces.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai got a modest political boost Friday when a national peace conference backed his efforts to begin substantive talks with the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent forces.
At the end of a choreographed three-day gathering of 1,600 selected delegates, the conference endorsed Karzai’s push for peace talks to bring an end to nearly nine years of war.
“You have charted the way, and we will follow it,” Karzai assured the delegates in his closing address in a tent on the Kabul university campus where he was tapped in 2001 to become the country’s first post-Taliban-era president.
After emotional debates and a jarring Taliban attack on Wednesday’s opening ceremony, the gathering urged Taliban leaders to distance themselves from al-Qaida and open talks with Karzai.
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The final resolution called on the United Nations to remove militant Taliban leaders from its blacklist, a proposal that could make it easier for Karzai to reach out to the most notorious and influential insurgents.
On Friday, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of international military forces in Afghanistan, watched as the assembly also called on U.S. officials to make a good-faith gesture by releasing some Afghan prisoners from their detention centers.
International leaders joined Afghan delegates in hailing the gathering as a step in the right direction. The U.N.’s Afghan mission called it an “important steppingstone” in the peace process and the U.S. Embassy welcomed the discussions as the beginning of a process.
“It was a good starting place, but now it depends on the other side,” said Zalmay Yunesi, a delegate from northern Afghanistan.
Officially, the Taliban leadership has shown little inclination to engage in talks, and Friday the Taliban again belittled the gathering on one of their websites as a “waste of time.” Their statement accused Karzai of doing the bidding of his Western backers and misusing Afghanistan’s tradition of solving problems by bringing leaders together in jirgas.
Before talks can proceed, Karzai has demanded Taliban leaders renounce violence, sever ties with al-Qaida and accept Afghanistan’s modern constitution.
The Taliban leadership says it won’t talk peace until the U.S.-led military forces — now topping 100,000 — leave Afghanistan.
Karzai has begun pursuing talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Taliban ally who leads the insurgent group Hizb-i-Islami, and the president has dispatched special envoys to join preliminary talks with Afghan insurgent leaders.
One Hizb-i-Islami member who took part in the Kabul gathering said he supported the push for peace but was upset the final statement didn’t criticize destabilizing Afghan warlords along with the Taliban.
The man, a teacher from Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province, said government backing for warlords with militias undercut the efforts to win support.
“The government creates militias, and it makes people turn to the Taliban,” said the teacher, who declined to give his name because of his ties to the insurgents.
Lingering concerns also were evident Friday when two women participating in the gathering disrupted Karzai’s speech with a demand to speak.
Other delegates were upset that more concrete proposals, such as an immediate cease-fire and a firm timetable for removing international forces from Afghanistan, weren’t in the final statement.
To push the process forward, the assembly called on Karzai to form a special committee and ask world leaders to endorse the proposals next month when they come to Kabul for an international conference.