Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday appointed the members of a new council that aims to negotiate a peace settlement with Afghan Taliban. The Taliban, who earlier Tuesday assassinated the deputy governor of a key province, immediately rebuffed Mr. Karzai's latest overtures.
Mr. Karzai, who cried during Tuesday's speech as he recounted Afghanistan's woes, has made the pursuit of a peace deal his key priority. This outreach had been met with hostility by many leaders of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, who fear Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun, is willing to make to make too many concessions to the mostly Pashtun insurgents.
In response to those concerns, the new council's 68 members include some of the fiercest opponents of accommodating the Taliban, such as ethnic Hazara strongman Mohammed Mohaqeq and Uzbek leader Norullah Saadat, in addition to former Taliban officials and some of the country's most influential warlords and clerics.
Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the new council will be the sole agency negotiating with the Taliban, and the government won't undertake any back-channel talks. Over the past two years, Mr. Karzai's representatives and the United Nations repeatedly attempted to engage the Taliban, but these preliminary secret discussions bore little fruit. The most promising contacts, involving the Taliban's second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, ended abruptly after Mr. Baradar was arrested by Pakistani intelligence in February. He remains in Pakistani custody.
In Tuesday's speech, a visibly distraught Mr. Karzai appealed to the Taliban to end the widening war. "If they consider themselves from this land, if they see themselves as Muslim and Afghan, they should accept the constitution and come to us," Mr. Karzai said.
The Afghan president's rambling address, broadcast live on television, lamented the suffering, illiteracy and poverty caused by 30 years of war. Mr. Karzai started crying as he explained that he wants his young son Mirwais to grow up as an Afghan in Kabul and become a doctorand not to have to emigrate.
American officials have endorsed Mr. Karzai's peace quest, saying a similar approach to Sunni insurgents in Iraq helped drastically diminish the level of violence there. U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led coalition troops here, told reporters on Monday that "very high-level Taliban leaders" have already reached out to Mr. Karzai's administration.
The Taliban, however, rejected on Tuesday Gen. Petraeus's statement as "baseless," saying the insurgent movement won't take part in any negotiations as long as U.S.-led foreign forces remain in the country.
"It is the propaganda of the Americans to cover their failure in Afghanistan, and to show their people that they are successful in the war," the Afghan Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has not had any contact with the Afghan government or the foreigners for peace talks."
On Tuesday morning, a bomb hidden in a parked motorbike exploded near a convoy carrying the deputy governor of the eastern Ghazni province, Kazem Allahyar, Afghan officials said. The bomb killed Mr. Allahyar, his son, two nephews, and two bodyguards. Mr. Muhajed, the Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility.
Afghan government officials are routinely targeted by the insurgents, who have mounted hundreds of assassination attempts against public servants across the violence-wracked southern and eastern provinces of the country in recent months.
At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition has increased the tempo of Special Operations raids on Taliban commanders throughout the country, killing or arresting hundreds of insurgent leaders. In recent days, the coalition reported several strikes that resulted in dozens of insurgent deaths each.
Arsalan Rahmani, an Afghan senator who served as a deputy minister in the pre-2001 Taliban government and is now on the new peace commission, said Tuesday that he was "optimistic" about the negotiations' chances because of such military pressure applied on the Taliban.
The insurgents, he explained, might be more willing to talk "because their houses, bases and villages are being bombed, and they themselves are being killed." For the talks to succeed, he added, insurgents imprisoned in Afghan and American detention facilities should be freed, and the Taliban should be allowed to open a political office where members could operate without fear of arrest.
Some of the new peace council's members are the former warlords who plunged Afghanistan into a bloody civil war following the Communist regime's collapse in 1992, and later fought the Taliban in the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.
"Many of these men are unlikely peacemakers. There are too many names here that Afghans will associate with war crimes, warlordism and corruption," said Rachel Reid, a Kabul-based analyst for Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Omar, the Afghan president's spokesman, defended the inclusion of these commandersmany of whom bitterly battled the Taliban and each other in the past. "Ten years ago, they had different reasons for fighting, but now the situation has changed," he said. "The people who used to fight now need peace." (WSJ)