KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai got a modest political boost Friday when a national peace conference backed his efforts to launch substantive talks with the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent forces.
At the end of a choreographed three-day gathering of 1,600 selected delegates, the conference endorsed Karzai’s push for peace talks to bring an end to nearly nine years of war.
“You have charted the way, and we will follow it,” Karzai assured the delegates in his closing address in a cavernous tent on the Kabul university campus.
After emotional debates and a jarring Taliban attack on Wednesday’s opening ceremony, the gathering urged Taliban leaders to distance themselves from al-Qaida and open talks with Karzai.
The final resolution called on the United Nations to remove militant Taliban leaders from its blacklist, a controversial proposal that could make it easier for Karzai to reach out to the most notorious and influential insurgents.
On Friday, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of international military forces in Afghanistan, looked on as the assembly also called on U.S. officials to make a good-faith gesture by releasing some Afghan prisoners from their detention centers.
International leaders joined Afghan delegates in hailing the gathering as a step in the right direction. The U.S. Embassy welcomed the discussions as the beginning of a process.
Officially, the Taliban leadership has shown little inclination to engage in talks. On Friday, the Taliban again belittled the gathering on one of their websites as a “waste of time.” Their statement accused Karzai of doing the bidding of his Western backers and misusing Afghanistan’s tradition of solving problems by bringing leaders together in jirgas.
Taliban hard-liners made their opposition clear on the first day of the assembly, when two or three militants targeted the tent with rockets in an attempt to derail the discussions.
Before any talks can proceed, Karzai has demanded that Taliban leaders renounce violence, sever ties with al-Qaida and accept Afghanistan’s modern constitution.
The Taliban leadership says it won’t talk peace until the U.S.-led military forces – now topping 100,000 – leave Afghanistan.
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