Sunday, September 5, 2010

Afghanistan Forms Council to Pursue Peace Talks with Taliban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Sept. 4 that he had set up a council to pursue peace talks with the Taliban, who have been waging an insurgency in Afghanistan for nine years.

The formation of the High Peace Council was "a significant step towards peace talks," a statement from Karzai's office said.

The move is one of the most significant steps Karzai has taken in his oft-stated efforts to open a dialogue with the Taliban leadership aimed at speeding an end to the long war.

Karzai's plan to create the High Peace Council was approved in June at a peace jirga in Kabul attended by community, tribal, religious and political leaders from across the country.

The council was mooted as a negotiating body, to be made up of representatives of a broad section of Afghan society, to talk peace with the Taliban, who have been waging war since their regime was toppled in late 2001.

Officials met Karzai at his palace Sept. 4 to finalize the list of members, who would include "jihadi leaders, influential figures and women," the statement said.

The complete list of members would be announced after the Eid holiday next week, it said.

Karzai's announcement had been expected some days ago, after he met last week with former mujahedeen leaders Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, as well as officials, to discuss the make up of the council.

His spokesman Simak Herawi said last week that it would include "some [former] Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami members," a reference to a minor militant group led by former prime minister and mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"This council will ... certainly be effective in decreasing the level of violence in Afghanistan," Herawi said.

Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami is currently in a tenuous alliance with the Taliban, although both sides remain suspicious of each other.

Hekmatyar's power has waned over the years and he commands far fewer fighters than the Taliban. Nevertheless, the group is active across part of Afghanistan's northern and eastern provinces.

The Taliban have repeatedly spurned peace overtures, deriding Karzai's government as a puppet of the United States and saying they will not talk peace until all foreign forces have left the country.

The announcement comes as the insurgency escalates and the number of foreign troop casualties so far this year nears the 2009 toll of 485, with the deaths on Aug. 31 of five U.S. service members in two separate incidents.

The United States and NATO have about 140,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, most of them in the southern hotspots of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

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