Afghanistan sets up 70-member peace council, formalizing efforts to reconcile with Taliban

By Deb Riechmann, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Afghan government sets up 70-member peace council

KABUL, Afghanistan — In an effort to find a political solution to the war, the Afghan government on Tuesday set up a 70-member peace council, formalizing efforts already under way to reconcile with top Taliban leaders and lure insurgent foot soldiers off the battlefield.

A political resolution to the nine-year war is a key to any U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan. Still, leaders of ethnic minorities, including some named to the peace council, remain concerned that negotiating with the Taliban will open a path for the hardline fundamentalist group to regain power.

President Hamid Karzai has long said that he will talk to insurgents who renounce violence, sever ties to terrorists and embrace the Afghan Constitution. Publicly, the Taliban have responded, saying they won’t negotiate until foreign troops leave the country, yet there are many indications that backdoor discussions have occurred.

Waheed Omar, spokesman for Karzai, said the new High Council for Peace will guide future contacts with Taliban leaders who have reached out directly or through back channels to the highest levels of the government.

“In the past there have been no negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban — only some contacts and some signs from both sides,” Omar said, declining to elaborate.

“With the announcement of the peace council, I don’t think it will be wise to have back channels,” he said. “The council will be the sole body to take care of peace talks and the government of Afghanistan will respect its mandate and will not try to create back channels or try to duplicate the work of the High Council for Peace.”

Omar denied that President Barack Obama’s stated goal of beginning to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011, if conditions allow, spurred the Afghan government to set up the council or reach out to the Taliban.

“For the people of Afghanistan, peace is a need and we want to pursue it in any case,” Omar said. “It has no relation with any other announcement. It has no relation with withdrawal or with the presence of international forces here in Afghanistan.”

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in Washington said the Afghan government pledged to set up the peace council earlier this year at international conferences in both London and Kabul.

“Our position remains that we support this process and the keys to participation and reconciliation and reintegration are to cease violence, cut ties to al-Qaida and its affiliates and live under the Afghan Constitution, which includes protection of rights end of all Afghan men and women,” Crowley said.

The council includes jihadi leaders, about a half-dozen former Taliban, former members of the communist regime, at least six women and leaders from civil, religious and ethnic groups from across the nation. Two members have not yet been named.

Rachel Reid, an analyst for Human Rights Watch, expressed concern about the makeup of the group.

“Many of these men are unlikely peacemakers,” she said. “There are too many names here that Afghans will associate with war crimes, warlordism and corruption. This is a disappointing outcome for Afghan women and girls. Women are once again being short changed.”

Arsala Rahmani, a member of the new council and deputy education minister under the Taliban regime, said the council’s large size makes it unwieldy, and it could amount to window-dressing with little substance.

“It’s another commission to spend money so foreigners and government can look like they are doing something,” he said.

That skepticism, however, is countered by statements made in recent months by scores of top military and political leaders from around the world who say that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won on the battlefield alone. Japan, the United States, Britain, Germany and other nations have pledged more than $100 million to support the country’s peace and reconciliation program.

Qaribur Rahman Saeed, a member of the five-member delegation from Hizb-i-Islami, a major militant group that held reconciliation talks with Karzai in the spring, suggested that the council’s first order of business should be to set a realistic timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

“As long as they are in the country, there will be no solution,” Saeed said.

Saeed said Hizb-i-Islami, directed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, had not yet received a positive or negative response to the 15-point peace plan it presented to the Afghan government.

Hekmatyar, among the heroes of the war against the Soviets in the ’80s, earned a more reviled reputation during the bloody civil war that followed. Hekmatyar’s fighters rained down rockets on Kabul, nearly destroying the city. Nevertheless, he struck a deal with the new government and served as prime minister twice in the 1990s.

The announcement of the peace council also officially kicked off a nationwide program to lure Taliban foot soldiers off the battlefield. The plan, which is just starting to be developed across the nation, seeks to attract 25,000 to 35,000 fighters with promises of jobs, literacy and vocational training, and development aid for their villages.

“This is, of course, the process where mid- and lower-level insurgents raise their hands and say that they’d like to lay down their weapons and rejoin society, basically, and stop life on the run,” Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, said Monday.

Recent coalition operations have increased pressure on these fighters to rejoin society, Petraeus said. He said he’s heard of about 20 cases of insurgents expressing interest in switching sides.

Peace and reconciliation councils have already been set up in at least two of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, said Maj. Gen. Philip Jones, director of the reintegration cell at NATO headquarters in Kabul.

“The debate is live out there, but it has yet to reach the subtlety and the detail of what this all means — what the reintegration program is all about and what the implications are at the community and district level,” Jones said.

Insurgents in about a half-dozen provinces — including Herat and Bagdhis in the west, Baghlan in the north, Nangarhar in the east and a few in Helmand in the south — have expressed interest in signing up for the reintegration program. But right now, those who have expressed interest number in the hundreds, not thousands, said Aziz Ahmadzai, a senior adviser to Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top Karzai adviser who crafted the reintegration program.

In a sign that reintegration may be gaining traction, Mohammad Sharif Mujaddi, head of reconciliation in western Afghanistan, said about 200 Taliban fighters were transferred Tuesday morning from a western province to the capital of Herat province.

Associated Press Writers Rahim Faiez, Heidi Vogt and Amir Shah in Kabul and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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