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Afghan opposition courts Taliban

Talks began in 2007, a powerful coalition revealed last week. Experts say the move, an effort to undercut the government, could draw Taliban into the political process.

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As frustration with the poor security conditions has chipped away at the government's support, analysts say that the Front is announcing the talks now in order to increase pressure on Karzai.

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"[They] are trying to use the Taliban to enhance their leverage vis-à-vis Karzai, to force him to make concessions in terms of ministerial posts and other appointments," says Antonio Giustozzi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics.

As Karzai's foreign and domestic support slips, the Front hopes to use its new status as Taliban interlocutor to win international backing.

"The people of this country are turning against the international community because of the record of the Karzai government and the security situation," says Sancharaki. "The international community should look to the National Front as a partner in bringing about peace and stability in Afghanistan."

The Front formed last year when former Mujahideen commander and president Burhanuddin Rabbani organized other strongmen and former Northern Alliance commanders in opposition to Karzai.

While the Front claims the support of 40 percent of members of parliament and scores of other influential figures, it still has difficulty shaking a checkered past.

Human rights groups allege that the commanders were behind many atrocities during the civil wars of the mid-'90s, and sections of the population consider the commanders nothing more than warlords.

Talks with the Taliban increase the strength and prestige of the Front and further isolate Karzai, says Mr. Muzjda. "This is an election year," the political analyst says, referring to the spring 2009 presidential elections. "They are trying to bolster their popularity and show that they are committed to peace."

Regardless of their intentions, experts say that recent declarations of negotiations help draw the Taliban into the political process and convince all sides that a powersharing agreement is possible in the future.

"All these talks have the net effect of legitimizing the Taliban and weakening the rationale for foreign presence in Afghanistan," Mr. Giustozzi says.

While most expect the insurgency to continue for several years, the Taliban is facing increasing pressure to open dialogue – despite losses inflicted upon NATO and its Afghan allies, the insurgents have not been able to defeat the coalition in most conventional battles.

Shared antipathy for Karzai

Although the core leadership is likely to resist peace talks, observers say that some Taliban commanders might be drawn to the Front due to shared antipathy for Karzai and to the opposition group's more flexible negotiation approach.

A recent Taliban statement openly called for coordination with the Front. "There is no doubt that the former ... commanders of Jihad have given a lot of sacrifices for Islam and for the path of freeing the country," the statement said, referring to Front leaders. "Now, it is necessary that they ... sacrifice once again against this invasion."

Yet ongoing deliberations in the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania – where members are debating troop commitments in Afghanistan – are convincing some insurgents to eschew negotiations and continue battling until all foreign soldiers leave the country, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi says in a phone interview.