An Afghan national peace conference on Friday urged the government to take formal steps toward negotiating with insurgents, boosting President Hamid Karzai's plans to open talks with the Taliban.
The conference said militants who joined the peace process should be removed from a UN blacklist that currently imposes travel and financial restrictions on some 137 people associated with the Taliban. It also said that insurgents who want to take part must cut their ties with foreign terrorist groups a clear reference to al-Qaida.
The recommendations followed three days of deliberations among some 1,500 delegates aimed at ending nine years of fighting that have followed the hardline Taliban regime's ouster by US-backed forces in 2001.
Although the resolution was phrased in general terms it did not specifically refer to the Taliban it should allow the president to claim a mandate to pursue his peace plans.
That could boost Karzai's standing, battered by corruption in his government, his fraud-tainted re-election last year, and escalating militant violence despite a U.S. troop surge.
But any reconciliation talks were likely to remain a long way off.
No active members of the Taliban and other militant groups took part in the conference in Kabul. Taliban suicide attackers attempted to disrupt the opening of conference, or jirga, on Wednesday. In closing remarks to delegates, Karzai called on insurgents to take advantage of the opportunity to forge a lasting peace. "I want to call on Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami to use this opportunity to join with us and join in the reconstruction of this country," Karzai said. Hizb-i-Islami is a smaller insurgent group allied to the Taliban.
He said the jirga had provided a set of instructions for the government.
"It has shown us a path. We will follow that path step by step and, God willing, we will reach the end," he said. Taliban leaders, however, insist there will be no talks with the government until U.S.-led foreign troops have left the country _ a condition Karzai cannot accept. He wants to offer rank-and-file insurgents amnesties and other incentives to lay down their arms, and to hold talks with top Taliban leaders if they renounce al-Qaida and vow to uphold the constitution.
Washington supports overtures to lower-rung insurgents, but is skeptical of a major political initiative with Taliban leaders until militant forces are weakened on the battlefield. U.S.-led NATO troops are preparing a big offensive this summer in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province that the Obama administration hopes can help turn the war around.
On Friday, NATO said its forces had killed a top Taliban commander for Kandahar city, Mullah Zergay, in nearby Zhari district last week when a raid to capture him sparked a gunfight. In March, a delegation of Hizb-i-Islami held talks with Karzai in Kabul. And Karzai's government also reportedly held secret talks earlier this year with Taliban's No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, but the back-channel negotiations were nixed when he was arrested in neighboring Pakistan. Major questions remain about whether there is a unified leadership group among the Taliban movement with which the government could negotiate.
Progress on a political resolution is key to any U.S. exit strategy. Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring nations have a stake in any design of a post-conflict Afghanistan. Without a reconciliation strategy, NATO and its Afghan allies have few options other than to try for a decisive victory requiring a bigger investment in lives, treasure and time than the international coalition is prepared to make.
In a statement Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the United States welcomed the jirga, saying, "These discussions are the beginning of a process that we believe can help bring stability to Afghanistan and long-desired peace to its people." Conference deputy chairman Qiamuddin Kashaf read the final resolution of the jirga on Friday, after delegates including provincial, religious and tribal had voiced their opinions in committees of about 50 members each over the previous two days. The resolution said the government should establish a "framework for negotiations with those who are dissatisfied with the government."
The resolution did not elaborate on what kind of framework. Jirga chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani said later at a news conference that delegates wanted a commission be set up to implement their recommendations, but that its formation would be up to the government.
The resolution also urged Afghan and international forces to support the peace process by releasing prisoners detained "based on incorrect reports" _ reflecting delegates' concerns that suspects have sometimes been detained without adequate evidence or even by mistake and held without charge for extended periods at U.S. military prisons in Bagram, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The resolution further called for international and Afghan forces to prevent house searches seen as an affront to tradition night raids and to prevent airstrikes that cause civilian casualties. The call to remove Taliban leaders who join the peace process form the U.N. blacklist would likely require the assent of the permanent members of the Security Council. Several Taliban figures have been removed from the blacklist in the past.