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Afghan Gathering Agrees Peace Moves with Taliban

Sayed Salahuddin and Hamid Shalizi

Delegates listen to the opening address of the peace jirga by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul June 2, 2010. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)

KABUL  - Afghan tribal
elders and religious leaders agreed Friday to make peace with the
Taliban, handing President Hamid Karzai a mandate to open negotiations
with the insurgents who are fighting foreign forces and his government.

Karzai had called the "peace jirga" to win national support for
his plan to offer an amnesty, cash and job incentives to Taliban foot
soldiers while arranging asylum for top figures in a second country and
getting their names struck off a UN and U.S. blacklist.

"Now the path is clear, the path that has been shown and chosen
by you, we will go on that step-by-step and this path will Inshallah,
take us to our destination," he told the delegates gathered in a tent
under heavy security.

He urged the Taliban, who have virtually fought tens of thousands
of U.S.-led NATO forces and the Afghan army to a bloody stalemate, to
stop fighting.

But there were few signs that the Taliban, who have dismissed the
jirga as a phoney American-inspired show to perpetuate their
involvement in the country, were ready to respond to the peace offer.

The Taliban want the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the
country before any negotiations can begin. The insurgency is at its most
intense since their ouster in 2001 and analysts say there is little
reason for them to sue for peace.

Wednesday the militants attacked the opening of the jirga with
rockets and gunfire just as Karzai was speaking inside a giant marquee
in the west of the capital. Friday, the president took a helicopter to
the tent site to address the closing session.

The outcome of the conference was largely preordained, as the
government had handpicked the delegates and broadly set the parameters
of the discussion.

The Taliban and other insurgent factions were not invited while
the opposition boycotted the meeting saying it didn't represent the full
spectrum of Afghan politics.

Critics say the results of the jirga are more symbolic than
practical, given the disdain with which the Taliban who control large
parts of the country have treated the tribal assembly. Some saw it a
show of national unity to wring more money out international donors
ahead of a conference in July in Kabul.


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The 1,600 delegates, chosen to represent Afghan tribes, politics
and geography, approved a set of proposals including an appeal to the
warring sides to declare a ceasefire immediately.

"We must initiate peace effort with full force," said Qiyamuddin
Kashaf, deputy chairman of the jirga reading out from the resolutions
approved at the grand assembly.

The jirga called for the establishment of a high commission to
pursue peace efforts with the Taliban.

But the gathering also said the gains made since the ouster of
the hardline Islamists in the areas of democracy and women's rights
should not be sacrificed in any opening toward them. NATO troops must
continue to support Afghan army and ensure that Afghanistan does not
become a battleground for regional players.

Afghanistan's direct neighbors including Pakistan and Iran and
near neighbors such as India and China are all seen as battling for
influence ahead of a planned U.S. military withdrawal set to begin from

Washington backs Karzai's plan for trying to reintegrate Taliban
foot soldiers back to the mainstream but is wary of any overtures to
senior Taliban figures, some of whom, including supreme leader Mullah
Omar, are on its most wanted list.

It would rather that the Taliban were put under pressure on the
battlefield before reaching out to senior figures.

An operation against them in their southern stronghold of
Kandahar is expected in the next few weeks which military officials say
may force them to reconsider their opposition to making peace.

(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by David Fox)

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