Afghan Assembly Calls for Talks With the Taliban

1,500 Afghan leaders ask the government to reconcile with insurgents.

June 4, 2010, 4:34 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 4, 2010 — -- As thousands of additional United States soldiers arrive in Afghanistan to expand the war, the Afghan government hopes the conclusion of a national assembly creates the first steps toward a political peace.

More than 1,500 religious, tribal and political leaders today called on the government to reconcile with the Taliban, handing President Hamid Karzai a mandate to try and persuade fighters to lay down their weapons and abandon their insurgency.

The assembly, or jirga, carries no legal weight, and there is no guarantee that its 16 conclusions will be enacted by the government or accepted by the Taliban, who were not invited to participate and mocked the proceedings. But senior Afghan officials said the document is an endorsement of their long-discussed reintegration program, giving them momentum and isolating the insurgents.

"We used the power of the people, not power of the gun," Farooq Wardark, who organized the jirga, told ABC News in an interview. The insurgents, he said, "will either listen and talk peacefully. If they don't, God forbid, then the nation will know that it's them who are doing wrong, and then they will be like fish who have no water: They will find no safe havens in our communities."

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The jirga advocated talks with the Taliban as long as insurgents do not cross "red lines" that both the United States and Afghan government agreed on: no quick removal of foreign forces, no elimination of women's or minority rights enshrined in the constitution, and no harboring of any foreign terrorists.

But the Taliban, which attacked the jirga with rockets and suicide bombers, has long demanded that foreign forces leave Afghanistan before reconciliation talks. Their demand was vocally rejected, and delegates said they hoped their work would help separate Afghan insurgents -- referred to as "upset brothers" -- from foreign, more ideological fighters.

"The Taliban will be coming to be part of our government and will accept our constitution, so we don't have any concerns about that," Najla Dehqannezhad, a female delegate from western Afghanistan, told ABC News. "Those who will be coming to join us have to respect this government, and those who will be trying impose Taliban style of the government, won't be coming."

The Afghan and American governments agree broadly on reintegration, but they diverge on the wisdom of trying to speak with senior Taliban leaders.

Afghan officials say they want to work simultaneously from the top down and the bottom up in order to shrink the support for the Taliban in the middle.

But American officials believe that the military needs to make gains against the insurgents on the battlefield before senior insurgents can be approached.

Afghan Jirga Ends With Optimism

American officials also believe there is no obvious means to talk with senior Taliban leaders because they are all believed to be living in Pakistan, whose military and intelligence services will play a massive, as yet undefined role in reintegration talks.

The distance between the two governments may be tested by a somewhat controversial jirga recommendation: the "rapid" removal of Taliban leaders' names from a Security Council list of sanctioned terrorist leaders.

United States officials say they will consider it -- and point out that they helped remove five names from the list earlier this year. But they refuse to consider any kind of blanket removal from the list. And countries that can veto the removal of any Taliban leader from the list -- China and Russia, for example -- bring their own agendas to those talks.

Inside the jirga tent today, the atmosphere was more festive than when the proceedings began two days ago. As rockets fell around the tent on Wednesday, the level of fear was palpable and delegates expressed worry that their work would not get done.

Today, they expressed guarded optimism that the jirga would prove the beginning of reuniting a war-weary society -- so long as the government enacted the recommendations and the international community supported them.

"Everyone was united on the declaration," said Zulfiqar Shinwari, who represented Kuchi tribesmen from northern Afghanistan. "But this needs follow up, it needs support. In the old days, Afghans held jirgas, and they worked because Afghanistan was self-dependent. But today, we are weak. So the international community needs to honestly support us."

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