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Key Afghan insurgents open door to talks

The Haqqani network has agreed to discuss a peace proposal with government-backed mediators.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2009

Fight: Militants led by Jalaluddin Haqqani (shown here in 2001) are blamed for Kabul's worst attacks.



Kabul, Afghanistan

As the Obama administration ponders reaching out to moderate Afghan insurgents, Kabul has opened preliminary negotiations with the country's most dangerous rebel faction, the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network.

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The group is accused of masterminding some of the most brazen attacks here in recent years, and a deal with them will likely be key to ending the war.

"If the Haqqanis can be drawn into the negotiation process," says Kabul-based political analyst Waheed Muzjda, "it would be a serious sign that the insurgents are open to one day making a deal."

The Haqqani network is one of three major insurgent groups here, along with the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin (HIG). Of these, the Haqqanis have orchestrated the majority of the major suicide bombings in Kabul and have significant influence in the southeastern provinces. The group counts many foreign fighters among its ranks and is much closer to Al Qaeda than the other groups, according to US intelligence officials. This influence tends to make the Haqqanis more extremist than other groups.

Preliminary talks between the Afghan government and various insurgent groups have been taking place for months. In September, government officials and a group of former Taliban members met in Mecca. The former Taliban agreed to act as intermediaries between government and the insurgents, and met regularly with government representatives in Afghanistan and in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

In the subsequent months, the mediating group began to contact the Taliban leadership and the heads of the Haqqani network. "We've contacted the Haqqanis indirectly," says one member of the mediation team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They were open to hearing our proposals."

Road map to a settlement

The mediators drafted a road map for an eventual settlement. In the first stage, the Haqqani network should stop burning schools and targeting reconstruction teams, and the US military should stop house raids and release Haqqani-network prisoners (similar provisions were proposed to the Taliban).

Representatives of the Haqqani network have agreed in principle to the road map as a starting point for negotiations. But the specifics may change as talks proceed.

"These are the types of issues that we can start off with," says Maulavi Arsala Rahmani, a senator and a member of the mediating team. "It is still subject to change – right now everyone is looking to get a bigger piece of the cake."

The draft proposal states that if these conditions were met on both sides, the next step would be to agree on a system of government. The Haqqani network and the Taliban say they want an "Islamic Emirate" based solely on their interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia. The government currently is an "Islamic Republic," where versions of sharia and a parliamentary republic coexist. The final stage of the proposal would be setting a deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces.