Afghan Conference Backs Plan for Peace Talks With Taliban

BY Larisa Epatko  June 4, 2010 at 5:38 PM EDT


Afghan peace jirga. Photo by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

More than 1,500 tribal elders, business and religious leaders and other members of Afghan society — assembled in the capital for a three-day peace “jirga” or conference — on Friday endorsed President Hamid Karzai’s plan calling for negotiating with the Taliban on ending the eight-year war.

Karzai’s plan would offer amnesty, money and job incentives to Taliban foot soldiers and asylum in other countries to Taliban leaders.

“You have shown us the path,” Karzai said at the end of the meeting, quoted the Christian Science Monitor. “We will follow that path step by step and, God willing, we will reach the end.”

Because of the large gathering, 28 discussion groups formed and presented their findings at the end of the conference, reported Jean MacKenzie, GlobalPost‘s Kabul correspondent, who attended the event.

Several threads emerged from their statements that went even further than the government’s plan, she told us. Besides negotiating with the Taliban leadership, they also endorsed holding talks elsewhere with members who are still fighting. That could happen in a safe location such as in Saudi Arabia, where past talks have occurred, the groups said.

In addition, many of the sub-groups were amenable to reviewing the Afghan constitution and seeing if it could be brought in line with some of the Taliban’s more reasonable demands, said MacKenzie.

As far as whether there was dissension among the delegates, MacKenzie said, “Everyone wants peace in the country, but that consensus breaks down when you start talking about things concretely.” Some of the conference delegates raised concerns that bringing the Taliban back to society may mean a regression of women’s rights, and some thought Taliban fighters who have been named as committing war crimes should be brought to justice, she said.

The recommendations of the group are non-binding, but there was talk of forming a permanent peace commission to follow through with the Taliban negotiations, she added. And a report of the peace jirga will be presented at the next conference of international leaders and the Afghan government, planned for July in Kabul.

Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia program, said the timing of the peace conference, while coalition and Afghan operations are ongoing in Kandahar to uproot the Taliban in the southern city, was sending a mixed message.

And if Karzai’s negotiations with the Taliban are to succeed, they will need the support of Pakistanis, who would not be on board unless the talks have full U.S. backing, he said.

The key players who will actually make the negotiations work — the Afghan government, Taliban and international forces — were absent from the week’s meetings, MacKenzie noted.

But “the delegates I spoke to had a cautious optimism,” she said. “They kept saying, if the government is honest and if the government does these things, it would be good moving forward and would actually change the situation” in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have yet to give an official response to the conference’s concluding statement, though they had earlier criticized the jirga. And on the first day of the conference, they launched several rocket-propelled grenades in the direction of the jirga tent, though no one was hit. (MacKenzie’s report for GlobalPost)