International Affairs

Afghanistan’s President Karzai names Taliban outreach group

KABUL: Amid record levels of violence in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai announced the team of people he believes is key to bringing the Taliban to the table. Mr. Karzai’s office made public the list of people who would compose the High Peace Council designed to engage combatants who oppose his government. The creation of the council was endorsed by tribal leaders at the Peace Jirga in June.

The peace group came on a day when Karzai broke down in tears while giving a speech following the assassination of a government official in Ghazni, and at which he urged his Taliban “brothers” to lay down their arms. The council, which brings many long-time enemies of the Taliban to the peace table, is supposed to take steps to make that happen.

But the group is fragmented and without anyone who holds clout with the Taliban. Few expect the council will produce meaningful results. “Many of these men are unlikely peacemakers,” wrote Rachel Reid, a Human Rights Watch analyst in an e-mail to journalists. “There are too many names here that Afghans will associate with war crimes, warlordism and corruption.”

The council will consist of 68 members, among them prominent Afghans such as Ismail Khan and Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, both former governors and fierce opponents of the Taliban. Conspicuously absent are people like Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former high-level Taliban official who is said to maintain relations with the group and could provide some credibility in the eyes of Taliban figures. Even so, some Taliban members may be interested in reconciliation. On Monday, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, said that Taliban officials have reached out to the Karzai government.

But a key role for the peace council is unlikely, says Alex Strick van Linschoten, an independent Dutch researcher based in Kandahar. The idea of the peace council itself, rather than who is on it, may prove the biggest hurdle.

“The problem is that the underlying reasons for people’s dissatisfaction and reluctance to take part in these kinds of groups haven’t been addressed,” says Mr. Strick van Linschoten. He says the government is currently seen as predatory by many Afghans and “for this kind of thing you’d ideally need a facilitating partner, albeit one with some ability to push or force things through.”

The council has not selected a date for its first meeting. Unlike the Peace Jirga, which met only once, a council like this one traditionally meets on a regular basis. With nearly 70 members – many of whom already occupy high-level government positions – it will likely prove difficult to coordinate meetings and many observers question whether the group will ever meet.

Effective peace talks are more likely to take place behind closed doors and across many layers of Afghan society, says Strick van Linschoten. To date, the biggest obstacle to negotiating with the Taliban has proven their demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops. With the Karzai government still dependent on international forces for the protection of his government, he has been and will likely remain inflexible on this point.-SANA

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Haroon Akram Gill

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