After Afghanistan conference, an optimistic Karzai

After last week's Afghanistan conference in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai returned home optimistic, with money pledged for reconciliation with the Taliban and promises that his government will soon be given control over half of Western aid.

By , Staff writer

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    Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestured as he took a question during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday.
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Afghan journalists interviewing Hamid Karzai before he went back to Kabul from a 70-nation conference say they haven’t seen the Afghan president this optimistic in some time.

The larger dynamics from London on the Afghan war to end a refuge for Al Qaeda will play out over months. But international support and funds for the Afghan president are an immediate help to Mr. Karzai at home, analysts say.

Only a few months ago Karzai was down, if not out – facing US and UN exasperation over a fraudulent election, since patched over, and for foot-dragging in a nine-year war.

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But he arrived in Kabul Sunday with NATO support for Taliban engagement, funding of $140 million for the first year of the policy – and agreement that his government will soon administer 50 percent of Western aid, rather than the 20 percent it now controls.

The final communiqué in London did not address a new regional role for actors such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for reasons of political sensitivity. But both nations are considered to eye any momentum to engage the Taliban in positive terms. Both have significant influence inside the country.

Renewed calls for reconciliation

Karzai Sunday in Kabul reiterated an offer for Taliban soldiers to lay down their arms in what is being called a “reconciliation and reintegration” policy. While viewed with strong skepticism by some Taliban experts, Karzai’s idea to reach out to our “disenchanted brothers” is an appeal to Afghan solidarity, an appeal to rank and file soldiers that are less ideological, and an attempt to probe for fissures in the Taliban’s disparate leadership among those less committed to Al Qaeda’s brand of jihad.

Karzai also said a peace jirga, or a traditional grand assembly of tribal elders, will be convened in Kabul "soon" to discuss how to start a new effort with Taliban: “We, as Afghans, are trying our best to reach as high as possible to bring peace and security to Afghanistan," he said. His aides told reporters in London that the Taliban would not be brought into a “powersharing” role in the Kabul government.

While Taliban forces are considered to be in a strong position, they have been unable to hold territory. Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Afghanistan and the Taliban who is based in Lahore, Pakistan, wrote recently in the New York Review of Books that “the next few months could offer a critical opportunity to persuade the Taliban that this is the best time to negotiate a settlement, because they are at their strongest."

The day-long London meeting will also have “focused the attention” of the Afghan president and his inner circle, as one American official put it, by a strong leitmotif that the NATO deployment is “not open-ended,” and by constant references to a “transition of responsibility” to Kabul and to Afghan police and army security in provinces “starting this year,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated.

Potential part for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

Pakistan’s military and security apparatus are known to have significant ties to Taliban that have been at odds with the war policy against them – and one of the chief benefits of a Taliban engagement policy would be to tap this often murky area of contact and influence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday that "there will be no peace in this region unless Pakistan carries its share of responsibility." She told the German weekly Welt am Sonntag that, "for a comprehensive solution, we need a much greater involvement of Afghan authorities and the inclusion of neighboring countries, in particular Pakistan."

Retired Pakistani Brig. Sultan Amir Tarar of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, long considered to have formed the Taliban in the 1990s, told the British daily Guardian last Friday that Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in hiding, is ready to begin peace talks. "He doesn't want adventure. He has enough of that," he said.

Saudi Arabia also has street power in the Afghan Muslim community through widespread religious missions, including its promotion of the Wahhabi strain of Islam. Saudi clerics and many local imams in Afghanistan do not consider that Osama Bin Ladin to be the only voice of Islam in the Hindu Kush, and Riyadh may have some reach, should the dynamics inside the country change from the status quo. Saudi authorities also have funds to back new ideas or dynamics, according to experts in London.

UN-Taliban meeting last month?

On the sidelines of the London conference, UN special envoy Kai Eide purportedly said he met unspecified Taliban leaders in Dubai – though later said he did not meet them on Jan. 8, the date reported in some media, and offered no further comment. The Taliban deny any meeting with Mr. Eide – and say on their website that a policy to “bribe” Taliban soldiers to stop fighting is a nonstarter, and can only begin after the 110,000 foreign soldiers leave the country.

Mr. Tarar of the ISI in the Guardian interview said talks did take place in Dubai with low level Taliban leaders. Karzai in London also confirmed such a meeting, speaking with Kabul-based reporters.

Rahimullah Yousefzai, a longtime analyst of the Taliban based in Peshawar, Pakistan, told his employer Newsweek that hard-core Taliban are not fighting for money and will be difficult or impossible to reconcile.

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